The apocalypse is typically defined as ‘the end of the world’ and is an integral part of sincere religious and secular beliefs, as well as pop culture. The apocalypse continues to permeate human consciousness even after two thousand years of religious belief in various though similar forms of the apocalypse. Today, secular apocalypses are more often talked about than the religious ones, but religious apocalyptic narratives give meaning to the secular apocalypse. Today, the religious apocalypse has a meaning of hope amid a fast-changing and sometimes frightening world, and religious narratives can be used to apply this hope to secular seeming apocalypses. This paper examines the basic history of this belief along with its meaning, and seeks to define the religious apocalypse separate from other apocalyptic beliefs. I will then explain how the religious and secular apocalypses are still intertwined today, and ultimately examine why people continue to believe in the apocalypse today. Modern apocalyptic belief hinges on the intersection of the secular and religious apocalypses and how the hope inherent to religious apocalyptic narratives can be applied to secular events, thus becoming religious apocalypses.
The religious apocalypse is a major component of The Book of Daniel (from the Ketuvim in Judaism) and The Book of Revelation (from the New Testament in Christianity). These serve as the basic documents of belief in a religious apocalypse in the Western world. Each follows a similar narrative structure, an indication that the world will end, but with it persecution and suffering will end, and that God’s believers and chosen people will live on in a perfect world. The religious apocalypse has always stood as a symbol of hope—a belief to hold onto in trying times, that things might just get better, as “rapture beliefs may serve as a defense mechanism…reducing individual fears and responsibility concerning nuclear apocalypse and transforming anxiety about such predicted catastrophes into passive acceptance of these as foreordained events.”Most religious apocalypses have some sort of pre-deterministic quality; while humans may control when the apocalypse comes to pass, and can expedite or prolong the time until it comes, they do not control if it happens; the end is inevitable. This inevitability exists because “there is no suggestion in the apocalypses that human beings can, by their obedience or disobedience, affect the shape of things to come. The future is already determined, in fact its course is already inscribed in a heavenly book.”The religious apocalypse seeks to give this inevitable end a meaning that goes beyond ourselvesandspeaks to the end of human suffering as the whole, rather than simply the end of everything. Psychohistorian Robert Lifton argues that motivation for apocalyptic belief is a combination of hope and fear as “apocalyptic visions…have flourished during times of great suffering…powerful sources of hope.”If the world is going to end, it is for a grander purpose, a comfort for many who feel powerless. In this way, themes of the religious apocalypse feed secular apocalypses as a way of feeling in control of humanity’s destiny—that the way forward is clear, a set narrative path towards betterment.
The typical meanings of the religious apocalypse involve the betterment of the world through the end of it. One variation is that humanity’s fate is that it is in God’s hands, where there is faith in the banishment of evil and salvation for those who deserve it, typically through rebirth, typically in heaven. The religious apocalypse is predetermined by divine forces to purify the world from sin and evil. Through being faithful and following doctrine, people can attempt to save themselves. The ultimate goal of a religion is creation of an idyllic reality or society. This is shown through the books of Daniel and Revelation which “offered their audiences powerful criticisms of sovereign and imperial power, a historical narrative through which persecution and trauma could be made meaningful,” here is where the meaning, where hope, comes from “the seductive promise of a new world purged of suffering.”This message survives today as “the dense and flexible symbolic resources in these works have allowed them to capture the imaginations of audiences in circumstances that are radically different from those of antiquity.”This is true of the original religious apocalypses and is true for apocalyptic beliefs in the modern day—be them religious or secular. Religious apocalyptic belief sustains because it offers a form of hope.
While one could argue original religious apocalyptic beliefs were not about instilling hope in believers, but rather fear in non-believers, hope is central to historical apocalyptic belief dating back to the Book of Daniel, as “apocalyptic worldview is a political theodicy—an attempt to understand the oppression, dispersion, and loss of sovereignty that plagued the Israelites without delegitimizing the authority of God.”Even though fear persists, the religious apocalypse grants a certainty that suffering is not in vain; there is promise of an end and of life getting better. Belief in this promise grants the very definition of hope, which has lasted a millennium. Hope that the end being reached is not, in fact, the end of everything, but the end of suffering.
The very thought of separating secular apocalyptic belief from the religious still invokes thought of religious narratives, as religious scholars Joustra and Wilkinson stated, “in order to steer…our societies towards the things that are good…we need more…morality that comes from outside ourselves… Apocalypse demands meaning… Apocalypse demands…religion.”In other words, religion is inescapable, at least in its ideals and ideas, when it comes to apocalyptic belief. “The book of Revelation identifies itself as ‘the apokalypsis of Jesus Christ,’ marking the first known use of the term”—the very word apocalypse, though the modern colloquial definition is “the end of the world,” is a religious term itself, the origin of apocalyptic belief is traced to religion.In fact, “the [very] word ‘apocalypse’ comes from the Greek apokalypsis, meaning ‘revelation,’ ‘disclosure,’ or ‘uncovering,’” as such, the origin of the apocalypse is religious.There is a sense of uncovering a new world, that perhaps the current world ends, but a better one is the result. This is the basis of apocalyptic belief: hope. Even when an apocalyptic belief seems secular—i.e. nuclear destruction, environmental collapse—a religious narrative can be applied to it, applying the typical meaning and hope of the religious apocalypse to the secular. The distinction never even existed in the past, as “the origins of the apocalyptic worldview do not lie “outside” of politics but are instead inescapably political,”as religious apocalyptic thought a la Book of Daniel originated from political persecution.Even religious apocalypses have political backgrounds, which is how secular seeming apocalypses such as environmental collapse or nuclear war can be interpreted through the lens of religious narratives.
One major example of applying a religious narrative to a secular seeming apocalypse is the extraterrestrial apocalypse. On the surface, there seems to be no religious application to aliens and abductions. However, the narrative structure of some alien apocalypse can be viewed as similar or identical to the structure of religious apocalypses. There are ideas of humanity being created by aliens in their image, as believed by the Raelians, which echoes the idea of man created in God’s image.Some believe that “a chosen few will be lifted off before earth is destroyed”, similar to a rapture.In each of these beliefs, there is “intervention by extraterrestrial, ‘heavenly’ powers,” where aliens act as the God of the religious apocalyptic narrative.The ability to apply a religious lens is neatly summed up as that while “God may have temporarily ceded his control over worldly history, he has revealed its outlines to his followers so that they may make narrative sense of their place in time.”Religious apocalyptic belief persists today due to its ability to be applied to a variety of situations—to see the narrative and belief of the religious apocalypse continuously as the world changes, technology advances and secular apocalypse seem more numerous—the religious apocalypse is mutable in application. The ability of the religious apocalypse to adapt to new technologies and anxieties allows the belief to persist and evolve with humanity. Religious and secular apocalyptic beliefs are intrinsically intertwined from their origin, and while distinctions can be made, they cannot be entirely separated. To believe in one is to believe in the other.
The separation between the religious and secular apocalypse is typically based on the overt presence of religion. Implosion of the sun or ecological disaster is typically secular, while the rapture is considered the religious apocalypse. However, the religious apocalypse was originally not separate from secular events; in fact, they cannot be entirely separated today. Hal Lindsey, a New York Times best-selling author and “the father of the modern prophecy movement” explains the religious lens which can be applied to secular beliefs as an ardent believer: “To the skeptic who says that Christ is not coming soon, I would ask him to put the book of Revelation in one hand, and the daily newspaper in the other, and then sincerely ask God to show him where we are on His prophetic time-clock.”One application of Lindsey’s beliefs that Wojcik shows are the Bayside Apparitions. The Bayside Apparitions were visions of the Virgin Mary likening Russia to the army of Satan, which achieved near cult-like following—The Bayside visions support the thought that religious narratives can be applied to secular-seeming world ends, even in the more modern day, with their belief that “Satan would infiltrate…the Catholic Church… convince world leaders to manufacture nuclear weapons…then initiate a massive war in the second half of the twentieth century in which millions of people would die.” While nuclear destruction is one of the major secular apocalyptic beliefs, religious narratives can easily be applied, making nuclear war a religious apocalypse for some, if not many, people today. The Bayside visions were a combination of religious belief and political beliefthat demonstrate how religious beliefs are used to give meaning and understanding to the secular apocalypse and reduce the fear of these events coming to pass.
The religious apocalypse seems to have an inherent meaning—a reason to survive the suffering at hand and hope for the future, whereas the secular apocalypse is seen as inherently meaningless. This is why humans always seek for a meaning, a way to continue, “…the way we conceive of politics during and after the apocalypse retains a fascinating series of civilized tropes about the human condition…our apocalypses don’t seem to destroy our modern order; we assume it will continue, in some fashion, even after the worst has happened.” It is human nature to find a way to escape the end, and if escape is impossible, finding a way to claim that the end is not truly the end is sought after. Which religious lenses grant us, even if a person is not explicitly religious, they have found a precedent to believe the apocalypse is not as dire as it could be. This is the way religious apocalyptic beliefs persist—in this way they are integrally tied to human nature and secular-seeming events, and our fear of being lost to nothingness is irrelevant. If religious apocalyptic narratives can be applied to the abundant secular apocalypse of the modern day, they give hope to the uncertain future of humanity, and possible ends of the world can be viewed with hope and the maintenance of religious belief rather than pessimism and the shattering of one’s fundamental belief system.
The religious apocalypse has meaning and cannot entirely be distinguished from the secular apocalypse. Secular beliefs began intertwined with religious apocalyptic beliefs—today they are colloquially separated but the ties between them can still be identified and applied. Religious narratives and messages of hope or betterment can be applied to secular apocalyptic thoughts. Even as everything changes and technology advances, there is comfort in the unchanging belief that things will get better; this allows people to maintain their beliefs comfortably over the years of progress as the end of the world takes different forms. A secular apocalypse is one in which the religious narratives are not chosen as the lens, not one in which they are inapplicable. Even when world ending events may not be universally seen as fundamentally religious, they can be.The belief in the religious apocalypse is sustained today because of the way it is intrinsically tied to the secular apocalypse. As the belief in one becomes more prominent, the other is strengthened. Religious apocalyptic beliefs allow us to see that the world is not meaningless and allows the maintenance of fundamental beliefs.
Cohn, Norman, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. London: Yale University Press, 2001.
Joustra, Robert, and Alissa Wilkinson. How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016.
Lifton, Robert Jay. ““In the Lord’s Hands”.” World Policy Journal 20, no. 3 (September 1, 2003): 59-69. Accessed October 24, 2018. doi:10.1215/07402775-2003-4002.
McQueen, Alison, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Wójcik, Daniel. The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1999.
Daniel Wójcik, The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America(New York, NY: New York University Press, 1999), 57.
Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. (London: Yale University Press, 2001), 165.
Robert Jay Lifton, “In the Lord’s Hands,” World Policy Journal 20, no. 3 (2003): 62, accessed October 24, 2018, doi:10.1215/07402775-2003-4002.
Alison McQueen, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 35.
RobertJoustra and Alissa Wilkinson, How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 15.
McQueen, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times, 2.
Wojcik, The End of the World as We Know It,190.
McQueen,Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times, 15.
Wojcik, The End of the World as We Know It,37.
Ibid., 60-96, 87.
Joustra and Wilkinson, How to Survive the Apocalypse,15.