Have you ever been in a situation in which you were afraid? Did that fear come from doubt? Or did it perhaps come from the threat of an outside force over which you had absolutely no control? To be sure, being in doubt or in a situation that is beyond your control can be a terrifying thing. In fact, the fear can be so great that you may latch onto anything that offers you any semblance of control. Imagine being in a desperate situation and being told that if you can just manage to hang in there, then things will get better. When that voice from the darkness is your only hope, then you cling that hope with the tenacity of a drowning man clutching a life-preserver for all it’s worth. This kind of scene has replayed itself through human history countless times, andit is out of such situations that we find the plurific works of apocalytic literature.
While serving as a Chaplain for the Boy Scouts in the North Georgia mountains a number of years ago, I had the chance to see first handthe modern day fervor that is built aroundinterpretations of the Apocalypse. While tucked away in ruralAppalachia, the book series “Left Behind”, centered around the Apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelation, took hold of religious circles and spread like, well, fire. It was sold in the fiction section of book stores – where it should have been – but what worried me was how desperately people were clinging to it andclaiming that it was telling exactly how things were going to be. The fervor around this series was only an indicator, mind you, of an adamant belief that’s been held in various reilgious groups for ages. There are those who believe the end of the world is near, and because they have a book that decribes it, they know exactly how it will be – and amazingly enough, it’s coming to pass right now!…or so they claim.
I have to admit that it worries me when I see entire denominations so taken up with the narrow view of apocalyptic fervor. Entire parishes, families, individuals spending their entire life and energy devoted to preparing for the end of the world that they’ve convinced themselves is eminent because of what they’ve interpreted/projected onto an ancient esoteric text. What is worse, is that they are by far not the first people to do the exact same thing over the millennia. To that end, I’d like to take the time here to try and explain the history and context of apocalyptic literature, and what it should mean to us as spiritually contempaltive individuals.
To begin, we should really put apocalyptic literature in context. For starters, there isn’t just one text out there that details the end of the world. For those that think the Book of Revelation is a one of a kind text, it isn’t. We have examples of apocalyptic texts dating back thousands of years. In fact we have some apocalyptic texts that were written to revise previous apocalyptic texts. The mere fact that there are so many examples of this particular kind of text that have been written over the millennia tends to pull any credence from one particular text having the “the” answer. And the fact that we find apocalyptic texts from many different cultures shows that the need for such texts is a human condition, not a secret held by a single religion.
To give you an idea of the tremendous plurality of apocalyptic literature out there, I’ll list some of them here. Some of these are text entirely devoted to apocalyptic prophecy, others have only a few verses that refer to it, but they all have, at some point or another, been claimed as authority. So here we go: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah, Daniel, Ethiopic Book of Enoch, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Psalms of Solomon, Assumption of Moses, Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, 4 Ezra, Greek Apocalypse of Baruch, Apocalypse of Abraham, Prayer of Joesph, Book of Eldad and Modad, Apocalypse of Elijah, Apocalypse of Zephaniah, Slavonic Enoch, Oracles of Hystaspes, Testament of Job, Testaments of the Three Patriarchs, Sibylline Oracles, Mark, 2 Thessalonians, Book of Revelation, Greek Apocalypse of Peter, Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, Ascension of Isaiah, 5 Ezra, 6 Ezra, Apocalypse of Paul, Thomas and Stephen, Apocalypse of Esdras, Apocalypse of Paul, Apocalypse of John, Arabic Apocalypse of Peter, Apocalypse of the Virgin, Apocalypse of Sedrach, Revelations of Bartholomew, Questions of St. Bartholomew, Apocalypse of Zerubbabel; then venturing into non Jewish/Christian sources – Apocalypse of the Mayan Calender, Apocalypse of the Mahdi, Apocalyptic Suras of al-Qur’an, the writings of Nostradamus, the Kali Age, etc.
In addition to these many texts, we have numerous examples throughout history of groups that were founded around an apocalyptic vision. To that end, for the many religious groups that were formed in the fervor of apocalyptic promise, when that apocalypse did not come to fruition they had two choices: 1) die out because their founding premise proved to be wrong, or 2) change the premise of their religion. Instances of such apocalyptic fervor are briefly as follows: destruction of the first temple, the Maccabeeian revolts, the Jesus movement of Judaism, the turn of the first millennium, the turn of the 20th century (Jehovah’s Witness), Hale Bop, Y2K, the “Left Behind” followers, etc.
Many people are surprised to learn that Christianity, arising from the Messianic beliefs in Judaism, was initially an apocalyptic religion. In essence, the Messiah was supposed to come, overthrow the oppressive regime, and bring forth a new world order. When Jesus died on the cross, this threw a major wrench into the whole Messianic scheme. So we have evidence of early Christianity trying to cope and redirect from this. When we read in the New Testament that “some of you will die before [this new age] comes to pass”, the NT writer is addressing a substantial concern at the time that people were growing old and dying before the new reign of Christ had taken over. To that point, it was the understanding that the people had seen the coming of the Messiah and the time of change was immediately at hand. Apparently, the promises set forthin prophecy about the Messiah weren’t coming true as they had expected. Of course, that is the point/problem with apocalyptic literature, it is purposefully ambiguous and open to a wide range of interpretations.
Which brings us to our next point: the purpose of apocalyptic literature. For the most part, apocalyptic literature is written for a specific people in a specific time in order to give hope in an otherwise distraught situation. For instance, the Jewish people in diaspora after the fall of the first (or even second) temple. According to faith, they were the chosen people, and their God was a righteous God that had promised them their kingdom. If that were the case, then why were the Jewish people in exile and under oppressive rule? To answer that discrepancy, we have prophetic writing explaining that the Jewish people have not kept up their side of the bargain – they have not been righteous enough, themselves. In another text, a prophet claims that the Jewish people are simply being tried so that they will be proved worthy of God’s promise. In either case, the the prophet claims that the time will come when God will overthrow the current earthly rulers and restore Israel to her rightful place – the steadfast will be saved while the unrighteous will be thrown away.
The same message appears in Revelation. This is the common theme of all apocalyptic literature – that times are tough now, but wait it out, continue to be good and then God will come to reorder the world and set things right. Apocalyptic literature is written for a very specific purpose: to alleviate the pain of an oppressed group of people and offer hope for a better future. Working off the fears that are present in their current situation, an apocalyptic writer tries to direct the people to be better in order to be ready for or in fact hasten God’s intervention.
If used to give hope or encourage people to be better, then apocalyptic literature is a good spiritual tool. But when used as a fear monger, or to intentionally divide or exclude people, then it becomes an aberration. If we are focused on an end goal, the end of the world and what someone has told us it will have to be like, then we can’t possibly be present in the here and now.
As spiritual contemplatives, we should be focused on the presence and experience of God in the here and now, for that is the only place that we can experience God happening. Besides, as contemplatives we strive to find God in the question (the questing) not in “the” answer. The idea of God coming in the end to rectify the world is a misguiding teaching. I think it’s better to understand God’s transformation of the world into a better age by focusing on how we are God’s tools for doing so. If we all begin to connect to the expression and presence of the Divine in each of us, and thus recognize that same touch of the Divine in all those around us, the experience of God in this world, God incarnate in us, grows and grows until it fills the world. And would not the world be an entirely different place if we all recognized the God in each of us?
So many of these apocalyptic texts describe the destruction of evil after evil has taken over the world. If you want to see that as how it will happen and even believe that’s how it’s happening right this very moment, all well in good. But if that’s the case, then we need to reevaluate how evil is destroyed. Evil isn’t a separate force, no more than darkness is a separate entity from light. Evil in a person is simply an absence or perhaps the overshadowing of good. How much healthier would it be to see apocalypse as the invitation to see God in others, thus bringing God to fruition on earth and overcoming evil by encouraging goodness? Personally, I like that a whole lot more than an apocalypse in which God has to murder all “others” out there.
Sure, an apocalypse in which we all become the embodiment of God isn’t as exciting as fire raining from the skies, but I’m looking for spiritual fulfillment, not a Hollywood Oscar. Andsure, acknowledging the Divine in everyone around me won’t feel as good for my ego as thinking I’m saved and everyone else isn’t, but I’d rather experience God for all God is rather than limit God to what I think God should be for my benefit.