Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Apocalypse Now, or Not?

Colin McAllister

Ask someone what comes to mind when they hear the word ‘apocalypse’. The end of time? Images of cataclysmic destruction? Catastrophic climate change and worldwide devastation brought on by a neglectful human race? A divine irruption into the fabric of human history to punish the wicked and bring justice to the righteous? The ‘Number of the Beast’ as 666? Zombies? Or, especially recently, COVID-19?

In the twentieth and—especially—twenty-first centuries, this word ‘apocalypse’ has undergone a secular re-booting, and indeed nowadays can mean many things to many people. Hearing the term causes us to look inward and reflect upon our worst fears. But the original Greek word meant an ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’, and a common usage of the term was to describe the act of unveiling a bride to her new husband at a wedding ceremony. The last book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse of John, is also called the Book of Revelation because in it, the author John is granted a vision in which he receives divine revelation. ‘Apocalypse’ later became used to signify an entire genre of ancient Jewish and Christian writings that shared similar characteristics. This corpus of literature addresses universal human concerns: the search for identity and belonging, speculation about the future, and (for some) a blueprint that provides meaning and structure to a seemingly chaotic world.

An ‘apocalyptic time’ is certainly an abnormal time, one that can be only be experienced at those rare moments when the normal, everyday world loses its meaning. Perhaps we are living in an ‘apocalyptic time’, not as a harbinger of armageddon, but in the sense that COVID-19 has pulled back the veil from our eyes and revealed things that were always there, but which we didn’t fully notice. What has this pandemic revealed about our society that perhaps was hiding in the shadows? Many would point to an inadequate stockpile of medical supplies and a shortage of testing kits, deep-seated problems of a bureaucratic approach to health care, the fragility of capitalism, increased mental health concerns, class divisions and racial inequalities, the difficulties posed by ‘remote learning’ to students without proper internet access, ‘essential’ vs. ‘non essential’ labor distinctions, and—on a lighter note—the sheer inability of most of us to cut our own hair.

But this time has also allowed us to see more clearly the good which is in front of us everyday. Families are spending unprecedented amounts of time together—at my house we eat every meal together, play more games together, and have virtual happy hour with friends we’ve not seen in years. My son and I play tennis almost every afternoon, and every Sunday is now ‘Super Bowl Sunday’ (one can find nearly every past game archived online for viewing). We have seen a sense of collective sacrifice, solidarity, and goodwill in our communities. The air is noticeably cleaner, wild animals are roaming urban areas, and musicians and artists around the world are offering free virtual exhibitions and concerts.

Is the current pandemic a sign of the apocalyptic End Times? Nah. We humans are resilient, and we’ve been through much worse. And let’s not forget that all doomsday prophets in history share one thing in common: they’ve all been dead wrong. But apocalypse as an unveiling of the good all around us? I’ll sign up for that any day. Let’s hope that we all remember the good things that have been revealed, and—as we begin to return to whatever will become our ‘new normal’—carry those things with us on the journey.

The Cambridge Companion to Apocalyptic Literature edited by Colin McAllister
The Cambridge Companion to Apocalyptic Literature edited by Colin McAllister

About The Author

Colin McAllister

Colin McAllister is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. His publications include the Cambridge Companion to Apocalyptic Literature, a tran...

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