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And when? And why? And what's to be learned? Divinity School professors Bernard McGinn and John Collins take an encyclopedic approach to the end of the world.

By Charlotte Snow


The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism—1,500 pages of religious scholarship that analyze how, when, and why humans since pagan antiquity have felt compelled to imagine the world’s end—was born in a decidedly non-apocalyptic moment: over Irish whiskey at Kitty O’Sheas, a Michigan Avenue pub. There, one afternoon during the November 1994 American Academy of Religion conference, Divinity School professor Bernard McGinn sat down with an editor from the appropriately named Continuum Publishing Company. Their conversation turned to the hype over the year 2000 and the significant amount of apocalyptic scholarship amassed during the past 30 years. The time was right, they agreed, if not for the end of the world, then at least for a standard reference chronicling its coming.

Known among his colleagues as “Mr. Apocalypse” for his more than 20-year immersion in the subject, McGinn enlisted as coeditors Divinity School professor John J. Collins, an expert on the origins of apocalyptic beliefs, and Indiana University’s Stephen J. Stein, a former president of the American Society of Church History. Taking a chronological rather than alphabetical approach to the project, they chose to focus on Western Judeo-Christian traditions, with some discussion of Islam.

Published this past summer, the Encyclopedia charts the evolution of apocalyptic thought in three volumes of 43 original essays by 42 international scholars. Their sober research does not make apocalyptic predictions, seek to validate or disprove certain theories, or, as the Library Journal noted in its favorable review, offer fodder “for fans of UFOs, crop circles, or the re-emergence of Atlantis or Mu.” Rather, the essayists strive to illuminate how societies have struggled with apocalyptic notions and reflected them in art, literature, political rhetoric, and popular culture.

“Apocalypticism isn’t going to go away,” says Stein. “What has kept these traditions so powerful is our inherent desire to know what the future will bring. These are deep, rich, powerful traditions that have continued for hundreds of years and are as powerful as they ever have been as the end of the millennium draws near.”

The turn of a new millennium serves as a natural rallying point for the apocalyptic faithful. Most current apocalyptic prophecies predict the end’s arrival sometime between now and 2005, whether it’s marked by Christ’s second coming, global tyranny, or natural disaster. Though the word “millennium” can mean simply a span of 1,000 years, for many people it invokes apocalyptic concerns, referring to the 1,000-year reign of Christ prophesied in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation or to general cultural notions of a lengthy period of perfection on earth.

“The year 2000 calls up issues of the meaning of history,” explains McGinn, noting that the next 1,000-year period does not actually begin until January 1, 2001. “The passage of the millennium has many people thinking about whether the next millennium will bring a great crisis in its early stage or a time of great human achievement.”

No wild-eyed prophet himself, McGinn calls the millennial fever “overblown but harmless,” and matter-of-factly says that “it’s a big mistake” to read apocalyptic religious texts literally. Collins predicts that “the world may well come to an end in the next 1,000 years, but it will be the fault of humanity, not a divine plan.” And Stein emphasizes his neutrality as a historian: “I’m not out to persuade that some predictions are right and to debunk others.”

At the same time, all three take their subject seriously. “These ideas are an important part of history and still have power today,” says McGinn. “It’s important to understand them and how to avoid their misuse.” While every society weaves its own historical myths, he explains, the three most prominent monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—distinctly center on apocalyptic notions of a history where God reveals himself at its beginning and its end. Without an apocalyptic mentality, says Collins, “you wouldn’t have Christianity.”

Apocalypticism thrived long before humanity faced the Y2K problem. Taken from the ancient Greek apokalypsis—literally “an uncovering”—the word “apocalypse” is defined by one standard English dictionary as “the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.” A more secular definition, writes Stein, generally refers to a “belief in an imminent end to the present order, either through catastrophic destruction and conflagration or through establishment of an ideal society.”

While they may differ in outcome, all apocalyptic tales comment on the future. “There’s a very special temporal aspect to apocalyptic literature,” says Divinity School professor Bruce Lincoln, who contributed an essay on apocalyptic temporality. “It’s the sense of an immediate future pressing on the present. It also expresses profound dissent with the way things are.” Take the Book of Revelation, one of the great apocalyptic touchstones. As Divinity School professor Adela Yarbro Collins explains in her essay, the prophet John used symbolic imagery and mythic language in Revelation both to comment on his time and to transcend it. Through the story of a conflict between a divine power and an evil beast, she says, John criticizes the Roman emperor for fostering a growing inequality among his people. Though some readers may look for a literal historical blueprint in John’s writings, she argues that the texts are more truly symbolic statements, full of details used primarily to make his rhetorical points, just “as any artist would create a narrative vision.”

The typical apocalyptic story, like Revelation, is one of good overcoming evil in a dramatic, often violent struggle, with history culminating in a day of individual or public judgment. “In apocalyptic literature, religion is writ large,” says John Collins. “The supernatural overtones are up front. Its powerful language and imagery provided the octane in the fuel of early Christianity.”

Judaism, he explains, first wove together and expanded the apocalyptic themes of ancient cultures. The Torah borrows the idea of good versus evil from Near Eastern combat myths, a moralizing tone from Persian myths that envision a lasting division between light and dark, and a sense of revelation from the Greeks and Romans, who presented a life beyond this world. Judaism then adds angels, other netherworld emissaries, and the idea that history is on a set course culminating in a resurrection of the dead and a final day of judgment. Later, the Christians created the expectation of Christ’s second coming, while the prophet Muhammad made the goal of achieving justice on earth in preparation for the coming judgment a central tenet of Islam.

Such dramatic stories have provided inspiration for art and literature throughout the centuries. “The phenomenon of the apocalypse is not just a matter of theology but also of major cultural import,” says McGinn. Medieval artisans, living in a time of church dominance and widespread epidemics, produced some of the greatest works to capture the heightened sense of doom and salvation found in the apocalypse. “Medieval folk lived in a more or less constant state of apocalyptic expectation,” writes McGinn, “difficult to understand for most of us today.”

In her Encyclopedia essay, U of C art history professor Linda Seidel examines one of the period’s most ambitious works. In the Ghent Altarpiece—a group of painted panels dating to the 15th century in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium—Jan Van Eyck depicted the prophet John’s earthly paradise, New Jerusalem, in a lush scene that includes at its center a bleeding lamb surrounded by angels and other holy figures. Van Eyck’s work, Seidel concludes, spurred viewers of the day to meditate on John’s words, lending them plausibility with recognizable human, plant, and architectural images. The altarpiece, like much apocalyptic art, she says, seeks to construct a “visual sense of forecast or foreboding, the mood and mode of apocalyptic writing wherein present and future are ineluctably intertwined.”

While the 20th century’s apocalyptic appropriations may not always rely on fire and brimstone, they are no less ominous. The Encyclopedia cites Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut, AM’71, as an example of “annihilative apocalypse” for its imagined ice-nine substance that destroys life by freezing all the earth’s water. Then there’s Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) that, as Stephen D. O’Leary of the University of Southern California writes, “demystified the machineries of nuclear war and exposed the paradoxical absurdity of the balance of terror.” Around the same time, O’Leary notes, the rock band the Doors sang of violent passages to “the other side.” In the 1990s, the Encyclopedia makes clear, apocalyptic rhetoric has moved even further beyond the medieval priest’s pulpit: to the Internet, where like-minded souls debate when the end will come; to cable—witness televangelists like Jack Van Impe; and to the best-seller lists, to which evangelical minister Pat Robertson’s The New World Order—describing an Antichrist dictator aided by Jewish bankers—ascended in 1991.

In its many forms, apocalypticism has served many interests. The Encyclopedia shows how it has provided hope for the oppressed, as when, during their sixth-century Babylonian exile, the Jews drew strength from biblical prophecy that their enemies would one day be overthrown. For centuries, Christian church leaders have wielded apocalyptic fears as a stick to encourage certain political and lifestyle changes within the church government, clergy, and flock. During an 11th-century campaign to restore moral purity to the clergy and church governance, writes McGinn, Pope Gregory VII often warned that the need for change became more important as the end drew nearer. Apocalypticism has also provided an alternative religious framework. Stein chronicles how, at the turn of the 19th century, German weaver and self-proclaimed prophet George Rapp, along with 300 religious dissenters, founded the pious Harmony Society to prepare for Christ’s second coming. And contemporary scientists, the editors note, have employed apocalyptic rhetoric to warn of the potential catastrophic consequences of global warming, the AIDS epidemic, and nuclear war.

In the Encyclopedia’s final, forward-looking essay, Divinity School professor emeritus Martin Marty, PhD’56, notes the paradox of trying to ascertain the future of a subject grounded in the idea that “the world as we know it and time as we experience and reckon with it ultimately have no future.” Marty suggests that there will always be a need for such rhetoric as long as people are drawn to it through a sense of duty-bound scriptural literalism, a need for mythopoeic fantasies, or a desire to escape the present.

An apocalyptic mentality may actually end up seeing us through the next millennium. While some apocalyptic notions have been used to justify suicide bombing and other destructive ends, John Collins maintains, the overall effect of the apocalyptic impulse has been positive, providing both “a store of hopeful imagery and the sense that problems will eventually be overcome.”

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