Apocalypse 101

”I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe—I believe what I believe is right.” With those words President George W. Bush (in Rome, July 22, 2001 ) expressed the problem of belief. Would anybody believe in something and think that what they believe is wrong ?

America is called a “Christian nation” (a 2014 poll claims that  83% of Americans identify as Christian ). From the scholarly to the devout to the fanatic to the mystic, the variants of Christianity express a large spectrum of belief and the human search for the answer to the question “How did we get here and what do we do now?”

The cover of the July 2002 issue of Time Magazine featured “the Bible and the Apocalypse.” A Time/CNN poll inside claimed that 36% of Americans believe that the Bible is the word of God and is to be taken literally, 59% believe that the prophecies in the Book of Revelation will come true and 17% of Americans believe the end of the world as described in the Bible’s Book of Revelations will occur in their lifetimes. Almost one-in-four (23%) say the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were predicted by the Book of Revelation. 36% of those polled who support Israel say they base their support on their belief that Israel is linked to the second coming of Christ. (Some Christians support the idea of nuclear war in Israel as a necessary event to bring about the showdown between the Christ and the Anti-Christ.)

There are some glaring problems with those stats. First of all, how does one take the entire Bible literally? The two gospels that contain genealogies of Jesus Christ give entirely different genealogies, and there’s plenty more contradictions. If people believe that the prophecies in the Book of Revelation will come true, what are those prophecies? The Book of Revelation is insanely difficult to decode, because of our lack of symbolic literacy, so the prophecies referred to by that 59% likely pertain to prophecies collaged over time by white men: most notably, John Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Hal Lindsey, and Tim LaHaye. The same holds true as regards the “end of the world as described in the Book of Revelation.”

That was in 2002. For an update, I looked to The People’s Apocalypse, published in October, 2012. It claims that 41% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ will return by 2050. One can argue, and I would certainly agree, that any stats are somewhat random and not to be given a whole lot of weight. Yet, as I’m writing now, Donald Trump is running for president, and though I don’t need to hate on him, he doesn’t have the qualities needed for sound leadership. Anyone looking to further a mega-war agenda to bring about the Christ/ Anti-Christ showdown would no doubt be tickled by his highly polarizing and divisive ideas.

After 9/ 11, Biblical rhetoric increased in politics. On March 5, 2004, Tony Blair peppered his speech with religious buzzwords : “September 11th was for me a revelation. …The point about September 11th was not its devilish execution; …what galvanized me was that it was a declaration of war by religious fanatics who were prepared to wage that war without limit. … The purpose was to cause such hatred between Muslims and the West that a religious jihad became reality; and the world engulfed by it. … Here were terrorists prepared to bring about Armageddon.”

Religious scholar Karen Armstrong worked tirelessly to offer Westerners are deeper definition of the term jihad:

Extremists and unscrupulous politicians have purloined the word for their own purposes, but the real meaning of jihad is not “holy war” but “struggle” or “effort.” Muslims are commanded to make a massive attempt on all fronts – social, economic, intellectual, ethical and spiritual – to put the will of God into practice.

Sometimes a military effort may be a regrettable necessity in order to defend decent values, but an oft-quoted tradition has the Prophet Muhammad saying after a military victory: “We are coming back from the Lesser Jihad [ie the battle] and returning to the Greater Jihad” – the far more important, difficult and momentous struggle to reform our own society and our own hearts. Jihad is thus a cherished spiritual value that, for most Muslims, has no connection with violence.

The same thing holds true with Revelation / Apocalypse — what is more fruitfully undertaken as a struggle within the human heart becomes an external us/them holy war.

Fundamentalist Version of Apocalypse

The Christian fundamentalist version of the Apocalypse goes something like this: when things got bad enough, including fulfillment of various “prophecies’ like nuclear war in the Middle East, Jesus will appear in the clouds and magnetically draw all true believers to him in an event known as the Rapture, a chaotic and dangerous event for those left on earth as cars and airplanes suddenly became driverless.

After the true believers are whisked up into the clouds, things will get really bad here on earth and the believers will sit in the sky with Jesus and watch horrible things happen – war, famine, and the like to all of us who remain on earth, not just some of us the way it is now. They will watch it like we currently watch catastrophic films for entertainment, smugly safe and comfortable. After some time of horror, known as the Tribulations, Jesus will duke it out with the Antichrist and after winning, Jesus and his followers will return to earth and Jesus will reign in peace for one thousand years.

I won’t delve into the Muslim and Jewish fundamentalist versions of apocalypse, but for anyone interested, I highly recommend the work of Gershom Gorenberg, a Jerusalem -based scholar and author who wrote the book End of days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. You could start with his article  Ariel Sharon: Messenger of Abrahamic Apocalypse

The above article can also illuminate how the various political versions of apocalypse contributed, and continue to contribute, to the violence and ever-polarizing activities that result in the emergence of ISIS and who knows what else might be incubating in the mix of apocalyptic belief systems on all sides.

Apocalypse as Genre

The Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, doesn’t actually lay out this scenario. The Book of Revelation is a densely symbolic piece of work and the scenario that is laid out as the Christian religious version of the End of the World takes a few bits here and there from the Book of Revelation along with other bits from the New and Old Testaments to collage together a story which has  gained mental /psychic density over time and through various men.

Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, was written in roughly 95 C.E. and entered the canon sometime by the fourth century C.E.. Apocalypse was a popular genre during the intratestament times (the time between the Old and New Testament) and the Revelation of St. John the Divine is the most well -known.

Though the term ‘apocalypse’ has come to be synonymous with catastrophe, the word comes from the Greek verb kalypto, meaning “to cover or to hide” while the prefix apo means “away or from”: to uncover what has been unseen.  (The emergence of #BlackLivesMatter, aided by so many people having cameras on their cell phones that can record events and throw them into the public view  via the internet, is the genius of apocalypse in action,  an uncovering of the violence that has been unseen, or seen by the few and dismissed by the mainstream. Rape culture the same. The internet makes it harder and harder to cover the violence that has been given permission in the culture against the ‘other’.) The literary genre known as apocalypse refers to tales of visionary journeys in which the seer is given a view of the secret and invisible realms that underlie what we perceive as reality and the timelines of history.

A common translation of apocalypse is “unveiling” and Time magazine July 2002 got poetic in their article “Bible and the Apocalypse,” saying that apocalypse literally means “lifting of the veil” and that an apocalyptic age is a time when the “veil of normal, secular reality is lifting and we can see behind the scenes, see where God and the devil, good and evil are fighting to control the future.” (Take God and the devil out, and replace that with the veil of Empire is lifting and we can see behind the scenes and the ways people in power have been possessed by greedy, violent, mad plans to control the future of the planet.)

Other Perspectives

Sociologist Gil Baillie, in his book, Violence Unveiled, asks, “What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence. Veiled violence is violence whose religious or historical justifications still provide it with an aura of respectability and give it a moral and religious monopoly.”

Writer D.H. Lawrence was certain that Revelation was a composite work written over some two centuries beginning as a “small Pagan-Jewish apocalypse written in symbols” then “written over by other Jewish apocalyptic,” and eventually put into its current form by John of Patnos.” Jungian analyses of Revelation also considered there to be differences in symbolic “language” that suggested editing and overwriting. (The sun/moon woman of chapter twelve is considered to be the oldest and most complete symbol, a remnant of the “small” apocalypse Lawrence refers to.)

Lawrence considered Revelation to be a reworking of a “ pagan record of initiation” of six stages of mystical death with a seventh stage that is both death and birth. The metaphysical treatises on Revelation (Fredierick Carter, Morgan Pyrse) also contain references to astrology, the seven chakras and the seven alchemical processes.

Fundamentalist Tim LaHaye, in an interview with Terry Gross, admitted plainly that the “primary purpose” of the popular Left Behind series “is to encourage people to convert.” When asked if he would like to be alive during the rapture, he answered, “We [speaking of him and his wife] would love to be part of the rapture instead of either one of us having to face the death of the person we love. …the neat thing about it’s that everyone of our listeners today, if they would recognize that they would recognize that they need to receive Jesus, they could have that same hope.”

If it’s true that the Book of Revelation is a symbolically encoded text that records stages of internal, mystical death and rebirth, then fundamentalism has turned it on its head to become a fantasy of escape from death sparked by the mega-death of others -the great War of Armaggedon.

Archetype of the Apocalypse

Jungian author Edward F. Edinger’s Archetype of the Apocalypse is an important work for giving context to our times.  An archetype, as he defines it, “is a primordial psychic pattern of the collective unconscious that is at the same time a dynamic agency with intentionality.”  In answer to the question, “What does the apocalypse mean psychologically? is: the “Apocalypse” means the momentous event of the coming of the Self into conscious realization. (Self as Jung defined it refers to the divine image or spark in the center of every human being.) …the shattering of the world as it has been, followed by its reconstitution.”

Structure of Apocalypse

Edinger  identifies four features of apocalypse as we know it : “Revelation, Judgment , Destruction or Punishment (as the consequence of Judgment) and then Renewal in a New World.”   Author Arthur P. Mendell, in his book, Vision and Violence, also describes four features of apocalypticism: “total rejection of the present world, the radical division between the sinners and the saved, absolute faith in the imminence of an ideal, divine Kingdom of the saved and emphasis on the terrible violence that will accomplish the miraculous transmutation”.

This looks a lot like the basic recipe of war: making the world safe for democracy through mass murder, destroying the infidel, the oppressed rising up against the oppressor in a revolution for a better world, though they generally simply take their turn as the oppressor, thereby changing nothing but their own place on the cycle of oppressor / oppressed.

Mendell reveals the apocalyptic structure in history beyond the religious: Religious apocalypse used to be a passive phenomenon, as it was something that God and Christ would do. Secular apocalypse, on the other hand, where the saved and the damned are played by the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, needed to be active in order to accomplish anything, as God was not part of the scenario: for example, the French and the Bolshevik Revolutions.

Mendell writes about the apocalypse of the Nazi era as the turning point into overt, active religious apocalypse with the idea that the destruction of the Jews was God’s will, though Nazism had its aspect of secular apocalypse as fascism glorified violence with its identification with noble beasts of prey. Still, Hitler was considered by some to be the Antichrist and by some to be the Second Coming of Christ. The collective trauma that was WW2 is still not fully metabolized: what must we still learn about the assumptions human beings make about our place in the world, the collective shadow, the unconscious, our relationship to violence and to images of God?

A true visionary text can be read many ways, from the most exoteric to the esoteric, and once upon a time texts were jealously guarded from those who lacked the maturity of consciousness to engage them. This was much easier during times when most people couldn’t read or write, and before the printing press, much less the internet. Imagine yourself reading or writing at a time when such activities were a sacred (same root as ‘secret’) act for the initiated few.  But even with that, mystical  and alchemical texts had encoded ways of being written, not straightforward. All the events of “out there” are mirrored ‘in here.’

At it’s most basic, though,  the Book of Revelation can be read as a revenge fantasy within the highly charged situation of the Roman occupation and destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Within that context, there is a warning about a way human power relationships play out over time: the oppressed (understandably and often unconsciously) seek freedom, justice and relief in such a way that guarantees they become the oppressor, which only keeps the same wheel turning. Oppressors need to oppress, and those oppressed become the next oppressors, who need someone to oppress: The lesser, rather than the greater, jihad.

To become a being who neither oppresses others (which can happen through extremely subtle forms of aggression) nor lives in doormat consciousness out of a desire to be nonviolent (which often perps the cycle by giving doormat-type consent) is a major challenge of our apocalyptic times. While the world unravels, we simultaneous unravel the ways we’ve been conditioned and weave an evolutionary collective consciousness.  If you are someone who toggles between agression and doormatism,  and know the truth that  neither will ever offer full aliveness and fulfillment (I spent a lot of time there, as do many who received Christian training) I recommend Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by Walter Wink.

Constructive theologian and feminist Catherine Weller’s, in her book God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys, wades right in to the problem of dualist, polarized ways of being with our times:

Both the liberation neo-apocalypse and the feminist anti-apocalypse remain pure, hotly mimicking the warrior hierarchy of the domination to be resisted or, in the feminist case, coldly mirroring in its anti-apocalypse the dualism of all apocalyptic demonization. Both modes of progressive thought suffer from unacknowledged binary strategies, which endanger the potential for creative new coalitions. The apocalypse reinscribes that which it opposes; the anti-apocalypse stance reinscribes the apocalypse.

The idea of becoming aware of unacknowledged binary strategies is central to what I mean by ending the self/other war. In order to not be part of the binary, dualistic, violent apocalypse as we know it, one must emigrate and become an ex-pat from apocalyptic consciousness. This is a difficult and at times lonely road.

In conclusion

Some archeologists, called ‘Bible minimalists’ claim there’s no evidence that most of the history recorded in the Hebrew Bible ever happened.” What kind of Truth is found in the Bible? Historical truth? Spiritual truth? With all the editing, translating, etc., reading the Bible is like going on an archeological dig of the human psyche. One must try to reconstruct lives from fragments and truth from hints.

Those so inclined may follow the various contradictory threads that others have left, but one has very little chance of truly untangling them. We barely understand the story we are currently living in. What will history say about us? To use Biblical symbology, we seem to be living in both a postmodern Tower of Babel and a Flood – there are many speaking, but even with the same language we often hear different things coming at us in a flood, a deluge of concepts and information without a context of common purpose, ethics or meaning.This in itself is part of an apocalyptic time: chaos, the lack of a intact cultural and mythic container to hold the meaning of life events.

Belief is a collage of opinion and a house of cards. Who shuffled the deck that built the house of cards called ‘belief’ in the individual psyche ? What would it take to collapse the house of cards that is belief? What would then be unveiled and seen through your own eyes?

next up: the Great Gamble

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