Most interesting to me is the overarching idea Lifton has that most, if not all, major apocalyptic ideas – no matter how different in details and minutia – boil down to very similar and even formulaic plans, which for those involved are not termed negatively but as a necessary step for the improvement of mankind, a sacrifice made for the overall human good. The end of the world being the end of the world as it is known, with its struggles and evils, ushering in a new world order without these negatives. The apocalypse is a rebirth, inevitable and necessary, for better or worse, past or future, for those who believe in it in any shape or form, secular or religious. When and how is the apocalypse redefined?
Lifton seems to redefine the apocalypse from is usual negative connotation by considering how it is viewed by those who seek it – a rebirth, a revelation (by the greek roots). The apocalypse comes from the search for utopia “apocalyptic violence as…a quest for spiritual utopia” (Lifton, p.59). A utopia looks different to different groups of people, which is why the apocalypse, especially is different religious contexts as Lifton examined, have different looking outcomes, even as the general pattern of the apocalypse is quite similar across times and places. There is a prominence of apocalyptic ideas and ideals around the world and across time periods and persistence of beliefs. Lifton calls it a “sacred mission of murder in order to renew the world” – in other words, it is seen as spiritually necessary, a necessary evil to make the world better. This line of thinking extends into the less global scale secularly, in political coups, new government systems to improve quality of life, and other missions that sought similar goals, such as the Nazi regime which saw themselves as purifying the world for the better of Germany. By this logic, the American Revolution could be seen as a sort of apocalypse. Even secular apocalypses like the Nazis follow a narrative similar to christian armageddon – Lifton’s view of “killing to heal”. The general concept exists in every religion and in secular political doctrines showing the universal human trait of apocalyptic thinking, tracing from ancient times to modern day, from politics, to Islamic tradition. The apocalypse doesn’t so much change as adapt to new times and enemies.
The human nature aspect of apocalyptic thinking is fascinating. Why does the apocalypse draw people of all faiths and cultures as an immutable truth even today when beliefs and knowledge are so vastly different? Is it human nature to search for meaning in suffering, hope in dark times? The apocalypse offers a sense of hope, that violence and suffering become worth it when the ultimate goal of a better world is one day achieved. Lifton mentions the impulse to “force the end”, to speed along this ultimate end goal by making things worse so they can get better. If it can’t be avoided forever, might as well get it over with. Religious scholar John Collins mentions that apocalyptic values of life can transcend death, and there is a tendency to try to make sense of chaos which surrounds human beings, a craving for power or cosmic importance which leads to apocalyptic ways of thinking, that the violence and suffering experienced has an ultimate end and purpose, shifting the blame and responsibility from people to gods or in secular apocalypses, governments. This aspect of human nature closely relates to the french term “l’appel du vide” or “the call of the void” which is a human impulse to think “I could jump from this ledge, this is a way out” which ties into apocalyptic views of forcing the end, to get the worst of it over with, and simply jump, because you can. It isn’t considered a symptom of suicidal ideation, but a comfort of knowing there is always another option, l’appel du vide is a term for the odd and unique human impulse to consider the possibilities for our own downfalls, and in apocalyptic senses, it is martyrdom and sacrifice. The best way to prevent unwanted ends is to force the one we’d prefer, so that it means something better and more important than ourselves. Why do humans have this impulse, and why is it so seemingly universal, to various strengths, and why does it affect some individuals more strongly than others?
America has a power imbalance to affect this cycle of apocalyptic thinking, and more care towards how much destruction or sacrifice is caused or given for an uncertain outcome is needed. Apocalyptic ideals don’t always work as planned, leaving a lot of death or harm, without the rebirth that was sought by the offending group; Lifton gives examples of Timothy McVeigh and Nazi Germany. Ideally betterment can come without destruction beforehand, and reconciliation of what is and isn’t truly a threat in need of an apocalyptic way of thinking and progress needs to be considered between increasingly interconnected groups, with fundamentally similar ways of thinking but see each other as common enemies, with different ideals for how the reborn world should look.
Why does the apocalypse draw people of all faiths and cultures as an immutable truth even today when beliefs and knowledge are so vastly different? The other questions here are how to balance the ideals of a better world among different groups, how can America continue its strive for improvement without perpetuation of the vicious cycles of apocalyptic thought, and how can religious apocalypses can be untangled from the more secular or political counterparts, when the latter is based on the former, and what are the inherent differences in their outcomes sought. The religious apocalypses have clear prophetic paths, all other thoughts or theories on potential world ends are yet to be determined.
Dahl, Melissa. “’Pronoia’ and Other Emotions You Never Knew You Had.” CNN, Cable News Network, 24 June 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/24/health/words-for-emotions/index.html.
Goldfarb, Kara. “Ever Stood On A Ledge And Thought, ‘I Could Jump’? There’s A Phrase For That.” All That’s Interesting, All That’s Interesting, 16 Feb. 2018, allthatsinteresting.com/call-of-the-void.
Lifton, Robert Jay. “‘In the Lord’s Hands.’” World Policy Journal, vol. 20, no. 3, 1 Sept. 2003, pp. 59–69., doi:10.1215/07402775-2003-4002.