Apocalypse Never (and what we can do about it)

I grew up in the Pentecostal church. When I was ten, I knew just how the world would end: “the fire next time.” Tribulations. Seven seals. The four horsemen. Rainstorms of blood and fire. And what was more, this was coming any day now: the present terrible state of the world had been precisely prophesied in the book of Revelation in the bible. All you had to do was read it yourself.

Polls indicate that roughly half of Americans are waiting for some variation on this theme. For some, it’s the Rapture; for some the Second Coming; for others the Apocalypse, but roughly half of Americans are waiting for a supernatural end to human history and the earth.

Why do people think that? There a lots of conjectures—people who feel oppressed, marginalized, or poor often hope for an immediate end to their . . . tribulations. I also suspect the fear of aging and death figures in. After all, if the world ends today, I don’t have to go through the death process. And I suspect that it also has to do with the desire of human beings to live in extraordinary times—I’m special; the end of the world is special; therefore, the world will end while I am alive.

Then there is how we deal with the fact that the end never comes. Oddly enough, it appears to be that rather than giving up on predicting the end when the end doesn’t come, believers merely begin to reinterpret and believe all the more.

Odd. Human nature. Something we need to ponder a bit.

Jakob van Hoddis was a young man in the early part of the Twentieth Century. He was a  poet. And a socialist. A German Jew. And he had some mental health issues. He began to ponder the end of the world and wrote this poem, “Weltende.”

Dem Bürger fliegt vom spitzen Kopf der Hut,

In allen Lüften hallt es wie Geschrei.

Dachdecker stürzen ab und gehn entzwei

Und an den Küsten – liest man – steigt die Flut.

 

Der Sturm ist da, die wilden Meere hupfen

An Land, um dicke Dämme zu zerdrücken.

Die meisten Menschen haben einen Schnupfen.

Die Eisenbahnen fallen von den Brücken.

 

 

The hat flies off the pointy-headed bourgeois;

in all the winds there’s an echo, like screaming.

Roof tiles fly and break in two

and on the coasts, one reads, it’s flooding.

 

The storm is here, the wild sea hops

onto land to crush thick dams.

Most people have runny noses.

The trains fall from the bridges.

(author translation)

 

Now here’s the irony: as a German Jew, as a “degenerate” poet, and as someone with mental health issues, van Hoddis had three strikes as far as the Nazis were concerned. And, indeed, in 1942, the sanitarium where van Hoddis had gone was cleared of its patients and all were killed.

End of the world, wasn’t it? But van Hoddis shows us the irony of apocalyptic literature: it’s wish fulfillment. In the book of Revelation, the bad people, who are people who persecute Christians, get what they deserve. Justice at last reigns supreme.

As a socialist, van Hoddis wanted the upper-middle class to get its comeuppance, and so in the poem, a wind blows the hat off ones pointy head.

You can see this wish-fulfillment tendency for yourself—take a peek at any apocalypse you like, and what you’ll find is the bad guys punished. Sometimes the bad guys are those who aren’t Christian. Sometimes they are warmongers. Sometimes they are the “liberal media.” Sometimes they are the “pointy-headed bourgeois.”

The upshot is always that a power greater than ourselves sets everything right.

You’ve read and heard the descriptions:

And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6 ASV)

(By the way, the lion lying down with the lamb is not in the bible. That phrase is a conflation of two verses from Isaiah, the other being:)

The wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain, says the Lord. (65:25)

Now wait a minute. Wolves and lambs do not get on well together. And lions don’t eat straw. But this is the problem with apocalypse: it is in its very essence magical thinking. The very nature of our world is that lions are not vegetarian.

So, back to my question: Why is apocalypse so interesting to so many?

Because long-term solutions are not interesting.

Long-term solutions are difficult. And boring. And require committees and task forces and lots and lots of charts and graphs and talking, talking, talking.

Who wants to work on a long-term solution when we can have our cake right now: the wind blows the hats from the middle class and snakes no longer do that gross thing when they digest rats. The serpents take to eating dirt. Nice world!

Unitarian Universalists are guilty too. One of our greatest hits among our hymns is “We’ll Build a Land.” I like it too but some of the lyrics go,

We’ll build a land where we’ll bind up the broken

We’ll build a land where the captives go free
Where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning.
Oh, we’ll build a promised land that can be.

Wait a minute! No—it CAN’T be! Gladness does dissolve mourning, yes, but you can’t bottle that and pour it on everyone’s head. Gladness and mourning have to exist side by side, and wolves and lambs are just not going to “graze together.”

That hymn is a great way to buck ourselves up, but for real . . . it ain’t happenin’.

And quick-fixes in the real world turn more often into Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Pinochet’s Chile.

Lions can’t survive on grass. And we human beings are going to fix the problems that we have created . . .  or not.

I’m not a prophet, but I can make a couple of predictions that I”m fairly certain of: One, lions will never eat straw . . . and some people will always choose a quick buck over the collective good; and two, “god” will not smite these people (at least in a timely manner). What those two things add up to is this: we are on our own. If anything is going to get fixed, it is up to us to do it. (And we know that our opponents are very content to have us curl up, get angry, and stare at our navels.)

Yet accepting “apocalypse never” liberates us to get down to the tasks at hand.

  • Train_Ryder – barbara

    Long ago I wanted to write a book.. the title was, “What if Jesus Never Comes?”. There is a theatrical term I learned when studying ancient Greek plays. In most of them the “god” comes down and solves all the problems. Saved the playwrite having to wrap up the play.. besides that would have made the play too long.
    Hmmm lots of similarity here, eh?

    • David Breeden

      I had forgotten about the god on the machine in Greek plays. Should have occurred to me! I’m incorporating this blogpost into a sermon for next week. I’m using that! That book is still relevant, when you write it!

  • Train_Ryder – barbara

    By the way, David, I appreciate you blogging on UUA/Patheos… I don’t often have time to comment.. but your thoughts make me think…
    I have a problem. UUA calls me to be an influence in the world; but my circumstances call me to be the caretaker of one person. I try to find a balance. I was thinking the other day.. If all family planning tools are removed then the masses will be too busy surviving to have time to even think, much less be active. Check Mate?

    • David Breeden

      Yes. That was Margaret Sanger’s key point. And I think she was correct.

  • Guest

    Most people don’t understand the book of Revelation at all, but most of it has already happened. Would you like to know more?


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