1. the complete final destruction of the world, especially as described in the biblical book of Revelation.
2. an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale.
In common speech, when we throw the word “apocalypse” around, we do so with the sense that something devastatingly destructive has happened, something that either ends the world in a literal sense, or that makes us feel as if a particular world that we cherish is falling apart or is somehow threatened. We live in a time that is ripe with apocalyptic thinking. As people look at the various human conflicts going on around the world, as we begin to appreciate the impact of climate change upon all of us, it’s not difficult to get in an apocalyptic frame of mind, feeling that our very existence is threatened, that our world is about to be destroyed.
Some religious people like to see these troubling times as a sign that God is about to act to bring the world to an end, and that usually involves some theological vision in which God destroys the world as we know it, and probably most of humanity, but saves “the elect” so that they might inhabit a new, glorious, everlasting world that is free of all these troubles. As the dictionary definition suggests, this vision is usually heavily informed by the images and stories of the Book of Revelation with which the New Testament ends.
People who are attracted to this sort of theology tend to read some of the sayings of Jesus through the lens of Revelation, imagining that when he talks about the return of the Son of Man in glory (what is usually called “the second coming”), he is offering an apocalyptic vision just like that offered by the Book of Revelation: a world-ending, sinner-destroying orgy of Divine Retribution.
But Jesus never read Revelation, and this kind of apocalyptic thought does not really lie in any way at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. He is much more concerned with how we live now, with what our relationship with God and with others is like at this moment, than he is concerned about what may or may not happen in the future. And, it may be argued, when he does speak apocalyptically, he often seems to change the popular meaning of that word. Take this example from this past Sunday’s Gospel reading:
Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
~ from Mark 13
In this passage, Jesus puts two things together that don’t really seem to go together, at least when we define “apocalypse” according to its dictionary definition. He invokes the imagery associated with that common definition (“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’), yet immediately after he says something rather remarkable: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that either Jesus was wrong (since it is manifestly clear that the generation he was addressing has passed away), or that he is talking about a different sort of apocalypse than we are accustomed to. Of course, there are those who would try to find a third path, and argue that “this generation” means something other than those who were hearing Jesus speak these words, but I find that to be too much of a stretch.
Some commentators have suggested that what Jesus is, in fact, talking in apocalyptic language about is his own passion, death, and subsequent resurrection. And when one reads some of the Gospel accounts of what happens as Jesus is being crucified and after he has died, that imagery also sounds rather apocalyptic (darkness covers the land, the temple curtain is mysteriously torn in two, earthquakes occur). Yet, clearly, no world-ending, sinner-destroying event has occurred. So what sort of apocalypse is this?
The etymological meaning of the word “apocalypse” is actually rather different from its dictionary definition. The Greek from which the word comes actually means “to uncover”. So, in the word’s original sense, an apocalypse is an uncovering of something previously covered up. And I think it is in this sense that Jesus employs apocalyptic imagery.
For Jesus wishes his disciples, and those who have followed them, to understand that his passion, death, and resurrection — and, indeed, perhaps the whole of his life and death — are uncovering some very important things that were previously covered up. In this drama, we see God show up not as the conquering military figure that is usually pulled from the pages of Revelation, but rather as the vulnerable human being who surrenders to our violence. And that act of surrender not only uncovers a very different sort of God than the one who often lives in our imagination, but also uncovers some rather unpleasant truths about human beings, like the way in which we make others whom we fear or hate or don’t understand into our victims in order to preserve our own sense of the order of things, or to maintain our position. In the death of Jesus, we see God uncovered as the One who joins the victim rather than the victim-maker.
And yet, the resurrection of Jesus uncovers God’s deep love and compassion for the victim-makers, for in the Risen Christ God shows up not as the avenger who will destroy those who sinned against him so violently but as the victim who forgives and who, through that very act of loving forgiveness, invites us out of our violence, out of our victim-making ways (thanks to James Alison for uncovering this for me!).
In this season of Advent, we hear a lot of apocalyptic language in church, and it tends to drive our thoughts toward the “second coming” of Christ and some kind of Divine Retribution that Christ will bring to deal with the world’s troubles. But I think this understanding is very far from the teaching of Christ, who seems to see in his own death and resurrection the apocalypse that really matters: the uncovering of inconvenient truths about ourselves coupled with the opportunity to move beyond ourselves into a different way of being human.
When we consider the latest violence of the world — Ferguson, Oakland, Syria, Iraq, climate change, human trafficking, and on and on — I think we should indeed see them as apocalyptic events. But not in a world-ending, sinner-destroying sort of way. We should not imagine them as signs that God is about to show up and kick some butt. Rather, we should look at them through the apocalyptic lens of Jesus, and see them as events that uncover truths about ourselves and our world that many if not most of us would rather not see. We should see God in the victims that emerge from these struggles, and recognize that the Christ whose birth we are about to celebrate came into the world to uncover these very realities, to get us to see them clearly, and then to give us the power to live differently.