Apocalyptic visions then and now


Parallels between ancient apocalyptic texts and modern apocalyptic images of zombies and wastelands are easily identified and intriguing. Meanings and interpretations of old word pictures and modern high-tech visual images are illusive. Besides, why apocalypse now? Well, because we live amidst crises.

Apocalyptic genres are crisis literature and media. Ancient and modern apocalyptic images arise in response to perceived threats and oppression.

The Book of Daniel appeared between 175 and 164 BC in response to persecution of Jews by Antiochus IV, threatening Jews and the Jewish state. Less well-known Jewish apocalyptic texts appeared in response to Roman rule and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Vivid apocalyptic depictions of approaching destruction, the terrible conflict between good and the evil, and a final victory of the good over evil were the basic building blocks of this genre. Judaism survived and moved from temple to synagogue and from apocalyptic imagery to rabbinic interpretations.

The Revelation (Apocalypse) of John was written from a prison island in Asia Minor around 95 AD in response to crisis in the early church. Christianity, as a new religion, was illegal under Roman law. Christianity was deemed dangerous because it was expanding across the empire and unmanageable. Moreover, Christians refused engage in political rituals of offering incense and confessing “Caesar is Lord.” Instead, they proclaimed “Christ is Lord.” The Revelation of John appeared during persecution. It described Rome as the harlot Babylon and its destruction in apocalyptic imagery.  Defeat of evil, the salvation of the faithful, and hope of a new heaven and new earth encouraged Christians to stand firm. The seditious religious imagery had meanings hidden from Romans, while understood by Christians. Christianity expanded across the empire until the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in 312 AD.

Many people don’t know what to make of Revelation, and others make all too much of it. Misinterpretations, ancient and modern, have been dangerous and destructive. Reasonable understanding of both ancient apocalyptic texts and modern high-tech images requires attention to genre, context, community and hope (religious or secular).

Modern recurrence of apocalyptic scenes is mystifying, horrifying and titillating. The world crumbles in horrifying psychedelic images, zombies emerge from the ground with blood-red fangs and wings, terrifying aliens invade, and monsters with special powers roam celestial realms. The story lines trace avoiding disaster, dealing with it, or surviving in pre-technology or super-technology environments. Some type of community survives, seeking hope and a future. Basically, the context is that this world is going to hell in a handbasket and we must look to a different world if we want to survive. Indeed, real-time news images of modern battlefields and famines evoke emotions similar to those of zombies and vampires limping across remnants of worlds.

How does one define context, community and hope amidst chaos? Worldwide divisions, wars and rumors of wars, disintegration of institutions and countries, famine, plague, and death provide contexts for the current appearance of apocalyptic genres. The global immediacy of high-tech media makes it impossible to define any effective community. Ambiguity around any common ending clouds any understanding of what hopes drives the enterprise.

Perhaps understanding genre and context will lead us to imagine better communities and hold firmly positive hope that will help us to live with aspirations rather than in fear. Resilience means dealing with small problems we can control. Our future depends upon it.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.


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