There is a definitive difference between a Religious Apocalypse and a Secular Apocalypse. A Religious Apocalypse sets its foundation in the idea that change is not only imminent, but necessary to the fulfillment of God’s Will. It brings into reality the end of times, the end of life as human beings know it on Earth so that we may rejoin our Creator. In contrast, a Secular Apocalypse doesn’t bear this teleological fruit. The very word Apocalypse is borrowed and altered to simply describe an ending of all we, as humans, know. Let’s examine the potential for hope in Secular Apocalypses, which are otherwise, quite hopeless. But first, let’s look at what, exactly, a Religious Apocalypse might be.
Throughout our day we hear sound bytes from various media sources. They give us information, sometimes accurate, sometimes not. We become engaged in the stories that swirl around our minds. We listen to the directives given to us as we try to weave them into some sort of meaningful life.
“Folks are supposed to remain within their homes unless they work within what is considered an essential activity or an essential industry…” Sam Liccardo, Mayor of San Jose.
“The borders to Canada and Mexico will be closed to non-essential travelers,” Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State.
Daily we hear stories of the dying, the elderly in nursing homes without assistance or family to visit, the young suffering from the likes of Kawasaki disease. We are reminded of a collapsing economy, dams being breached both emotionally and physically. It seems that within the course of a few months, the world was forced to a kneeling halt, at the mercy of an invisible foe.
Is this the Apocalypse?
The answer to that truly depends on who you are and what you believe.
The word Apocalypse has its roots in the Greek word, apokaluptein/apokalupsis; to uncover or reveal. The very word Apocalypse is Revelation. Over the years, due to the nature in which revelations happened in the ancient world, the use of the word mutated. In the beginning, Apocalypse was associated with events that occurred to populations that believed in one God or many gods. The people of the ancient world were believers in the faith to which they surrendered their lives. If crops failed, they needed to praise and worship the gods in a more pleasing way. If catastrophe happened, it was part of a plan that would be revealed in time. In any case, through the lamentations of their suffering, they believed that the unveiling before them would brighten their path for better times, for a future with change, or in light of the final Apocalypse, bring them in communion with their Creator God.
It is safe to say in our contemporary society that not everyone prays to the gods to heal their crops. Many, not all, Churches are reporting their membership is down. There is now a large portion of our population, at least in Westernized countries, who already experienced their own personal revelation; there is no God; or at least no religious or spiritual God. One could argue that some have replaced a God of religion with a god of economy, a god of materialism, a god of desires. Can money, material goods, or pleasure take the place of the function of God? Will these new gods soothe the need for comfort and revelation that our ancient ancestors sought?
The function of the God and gods of yesteryear were not to give the people what they wanted or desired, but to bring human beings deeper into the divine plan. Without this sense of rejoining something beyond us, something bigger, deeper, infinite, we truly face the end of existence. If we look deeply as to what the Apocalypse is supposed to give us by means of its, sometimes painful, revelations, it is hope.
Hope is a word that is fierce in its tenderness. It is the essence of the human spirit. Hope has been the source of our moxy to continue on as human beings when the world falls apart around us. If we don’t belive in something, anything, greater than ourselves and our own creations, where does that hope come from?
Some might say that they are the source of their own hope. Ok, true, we have the ability to muster up amazing goals and ambitions, but for what? When we talk about hope, associated with the Apocalypse, we are driving at the idea that we have hope in a plan through the suffering that will help us find eternal and infinite peace. That is the essence of the Religious Apocalypse, bringing about the end times on Earth to find inifinite peace on another plane of existence.
What did these Religious Apocalypses look like anyway? Well let’s look at a couple. Now some of these examples are not the Earth-ending types of Apocalypse. They do still exemplify a similar format to the all-ending type of Apocalypse. Perhaps the most important on this list is the Genesis flood. In the book of Genesis, Noah is told to build an ark for his family and pairs of animals. Frequently in the Bible we see God giving orders to God’s plan in hopes that some human will actually listen and follow them. God always however makes a promise with these marching orders. God’s promise to Noah is that though the Earth would face destruction, he and his family would survive the flood with this troop of animals. 40 days and 40 nights it rains and rains. Noah feels restless and wonders if this will ever end, but remembering God’s promise. The flooding does indeed end and life begins anew for Noah, his family, and the animals who will repopulate this beautiful new Earth.
Orders. A Promise. Destruction. Hope. Divine Flourishing.
When we look into these Biblical stories, particularly in the case of the Apocalypse, we are looking at allegory; a piece of writing that is meant to be interpreted into a tale of meaning, moral, or at times, warning. Similarly to the Genesis flood, the plagues that were bestowed upon Egypt were also looked at as Apocalyptic. God gave orders to the people of Egypt, God’s faithful follow those orders, such as marking their lintels with the blood of a spring lamb, God then promises the faithful they will be spared, God brings destruction down upon the unfaithful, the faithful remain hopeful in their changed life, the faithful live on in new ways of divine flourishing.
Perhaps, however, the Biblical book most associated with the notion of Apocalypse is … well … the book of Revelation! Revelation is indeed one of the most interesting pieces of the Bible. Out of all of the plauges, famine, world destructions, and desolation, it is the one Apocalytpic story that is most frequently taken literally by readers. While it speaks rather explicitly about the end of times using vivid symbols and imagery, it is still in actuality an allegory. The author, whom scholars call John because of the writing style compared to other Biblical writings, was writing of the Christians in captivity in an allegorical manner. The thinking today is that their persecutors would think it more harmless crack-pot Christian stuff and not realize that John was submersively writing about Christian liberation through Christ. The point, no different than our other Biblical allegories, is a story about the darkest of times, a faithful people, and the hope that is born from their faith that God has a better plan on the other side. They want to know that their suffering was not for nought. Their desire was to live God’s plan and find their inifinite peace.
What’s the deal? Why are we so hot about Religious Apocalypse in an age of science where we *clearly* have no proof of God? Well, because the age of science hasn’t found an adequate way to maintain hope in people for belief in a better tomorrow, or even a different tomorrow.
If we follow our line of thinking, the Apocalypse came to human beings out of a need to understand a few things:
1) There is truly something beyond us that connects us all universally, it is inifinite, it encompasses all of humanity, and it is some sort of creator spirit.
2) When shit goes down on Earth, this God-spirit has our back. There is an exit plan.
3) The prospect of an exit plan brings human beings real hope that they haven’t lived for nothing and they will continue on to something.
Simple, right? Then where do we go so wrong?
Perhaps the best examples of Secular Apocalypse that we see are in popular culture television shows and movies. Let’s face it, they are the allegory of their time. For better or worse we learn morals, lessons, and yes, even warnings (looking at you The Exorcist) from these live allegories. They’re all so different though, how do we know what’s apocalyptic? When we think it’s apocalyptic, why don’t all these allegories work the same way? Though that answer is complicated, let’s try to break it down.
The first pop culture Apocalypse story that should be considered is a show that was written in the late 90s and made in 2002 and 2003. HBO found a hit in the cult classic, Carnivàle. Gritty, sexy, religious, flamboyant, it was everything that HBO could ask for from anything pre Game of Thrones. The story’s basis is set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. A time of faminine, pestilence, war, suffering. It was rife for the four horsemen to just pop out on that screen. Though it does highlight much symbolic imagery from the book of Revelation from the Whore of Babylon to Beasts, it stops short of following in the footsteps theologically. Carnivàle, instead, becomes a gnostic story about the war between the light and the darkness. It is a fight between a god and a devil for the souls of humanity. Everything from the Alamogordo bomb to the dirt blowing and fields withering indicates the level of destruction throughout the show. It represents Apocalypse perfectly in its destruction. It falls short, however, in following through in meaning. It leaves the audience waiting for hope – literally because it was canceled.
Aside from its cancelation, Carnivàle lacked a cohesive storyline that would end this Apocalypse in a hopeful way. The ending suggested that the darkness could as easily win over the light. There was no creator God supplying a promise of change to the people that would bring a sense of fulfillment. Like listening to any COVID-19 update, you are left with few answers, more questions, and a deflated plan of where we will go from here.
“Similarly to John’s Revelation, when our social infrastructures fail us, when fear and imminent danger enter our lives, we move to express these manifest fears; for Americans, media is a powerful resource. If our social and political structures will not save us, we must create the Messiah who will, or live without hope or redemption.”
Carnivàle falls short of creating that Messiah.
It is not the worst, though, out of all pop culture examples of Apocalypse. At least Carnivàle makes an attempt to enter into a deeper philosophical and religious dialogue about beings outside of human beings who are at work in the universe. During the early 2000s and even beyond, there was a slew of outbreak, disaster themed movies that filled the box offices. Everything from global warming biting our collective asses, to volcanoes, to zombies – lots of freaking zombies – there was a new onslaught of apocalyptic dread movies. There really isn’t much to say about these movies other than they are a gratuitous play on the fears of human beings. The watchers of these apocalyptic dread movies and tv shows are filled with anxiety over the future while they watch the world crumble with no hope at all. The Earth is a ball of land and water, mother nature hates us, and we are left wondering why COVID-19 has actually not turned us all into zombies. Enough said, they’re not truly an Apocalypse at all, just a play on our deepest fears.
There is another grouping of movies that shows more promist than the Carnivàle-type shows, and certainly more than the apocalyptic dread movies. Let’s talk about The Avengers. More specifically, let’s talk about Endgame.
Fascinating in its premise, alluring by its cinematics and characters, Endgame is the three hour devotion of time that was most like a true allegorical Apocalypse. Outside of the side stories that weave the epic together, Endgame’s premise is simple; The Avengers are tasked with protecting the world from Thanos, life will be saved if they can, Thanos destroys everything, through sacrifice they find hope and band together, the new world flourishes. Absent of the explicit elements and talk of God, it has potential to at least be considered and taken seriously.
At the beginning of Endgame we watch a sorrowful Hawkeye watch his entire family turn to dust at the snap of a finger. We already know that half of the human population was literally turned into dust. Thanos, himself, like a god, retreat to a beautiful garden to marvel at his handiwork and retire. How very biblical of him even stating, “I am inevitable.”
More important than the imposter god, however, is the interaction between our heroes. In one faithful moment on Vormir, as Hawkeye and Black Widow understand how to get the soul stone, it becomes clear a great sacrifice needs to be made; one of them must die. After the ensuing battle, Black Widow outsmarts Hawkeye and falls from his grip, dying. The soul stone will only appear to someone who has lost equally what they seek – a soul.
The soul stone, however, and this great sacrifice like a flood for 40 days, is only one of the reasons that this should be considered as our new Apocalypse allegory. Six infinity stones in total sum allow someone to control, everything, in a god-like manner. Whomever controls these stones is able to do whatever good or evil they choose for the world. The infinity stones, space, reality, power, soul, mind, and time, represent principles of the universe that are beyond human being’s full understanding and control. They are likened to a universal creator spirit. While Thanos wants to shred the universe into pieces to recreate his beatific vision, the Avengers work to put the infinity stones out of human (and alien) hands in order to allow the universe to thrive on its own.
Endgame may still be a story of light vs. darkness and perhaps its not so different from Carnivàle in that way. Endgame, however, provides in spades exactly what humanity needs when we talk about the end of the world, the end of all we know, hope.
As we stand on yet another precipice of inevitable change, it is normal to wonder from time to time, “What will become of us?” This anxiety is familiar to humanity. We have experienced these fears since our creation. As certain as we are that these fears have been part of our DNA since our beginning, we can be equally sure that we have made it through these times by carrying on with hope in our hearts, minds, and souls.
A pandemic is spreading quickly across our world. We don’t have a cure, we don’t have a vaccine. All we have is our hope for the future. Our world, will be changed indefinitely by what has happend to us. If we allow ourselves to be drenched in apocalyptic dread, we will never see our new futures for what they can become. If we take a spiritual or religious lens and look at this new challenge, we can see hope on the other side of these tragedies. Like Noah, like the Avengers, it’s not in us to simply give up. We challenge, we fight, we continue. In the words of Tony Stark, “Everybody wants a happy ending. Right? But it doesn’t always roll that way. Maybe this time. I’m hoping if you play this back, it’s in celebration…”