Not all Christians have put much faith in the attitude of living in the shadow of the Second Coming enjoined in these words. Pope Boniface VIII, beleaguered by the attacks on his papacy by the Spiritual Franciscans in the name of an imminent end of the age of the carnal church, once testily exclaimed: "Why are these fools awaiting the end of the world?" Some great thinkers, like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, while never denying that Christ would one day return to judge heaven and earth, were strongly opposed to attempts to predict the timing of the event and suspicious of making the expectation of his return the center of Christian living.
In recent centuries, the split between apocalyptic and non-apocalyptic views of Christianity has grown greater. All we need do is look around us. The major Christian denominations often seem to have little room for the apocalyptic message of the Scriptures. Historians of Christianity and theologians attempt reinterpretations of apocalyptic hopes, but these rarely cross over into the life of their communities. When was the last time you heard a good sermon on the Second Coming? On the other hand, million of fervent Christians, those usually called Fundamentalists, still make literal apocalypticism the center of their belief. The ways in which they express this literalism and the ends to which they direct it, however, are often abhorrent to fundamental Christian values, at least as conceived of by other Christians. Apocalypticism is a sword of division.
Talk about the End is definitely on the rise. One does not have to be a prophet to predict that it is likely to continue to increase for the next four-and-a-half years, that is, until January 1, 2000, which is the date when the historically-challenged think the third millennium A.D. begins. Millennial madness already promises to be one of the media events of the next few years--it may even eclipse the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Shroud of Turin as hot-button items when reporters need something to say about religion. Still, this growing concern with the dawning new millennium may bring more than the satisfaction of idle curiosity, especially if renewed attention to the apocalyptic element in Christian belief allows us to take up once again the issue of how important waiting for the return of the Risen Lord should be for Christians.
We can give this issue a name--apocalyptic spirituality--but in order to understand what it means we have to begin by investigating the two ambiguous words that make it up. Apocalypse, a Greek word meaning "revelation, or unveiling," was originally used to describe a genre of text invented by Jews in the last centuries before Christ. These Jewish apocalypses contained a wide variety of heavenly secrets given to seers through the mediation of angels. The revelations often concerned the celestial realms and their inhabitants; indeed, some of the seers speak of ascending to heaven to receive their message. Other apocalypses involved revelations of the course of history (at times including enumerations of the ages of the world), and especially messages about approaching divine judgment on evildoers and the definitive triumph of the just in a new and final age to come. The intermingling of a vertical aspect connecting heaven and earth and a horizontal one disclosing God's control over the course of history has been characteristic of apocalypticism from its beginnings, though most modern uses of the term emphasize the horizontal, or historical, pole.
The first Jewish apocalypses, like the second part of the Book of Daniel, were written by pious Jews at a time when they were undergoing persecution for their faith. The message given is one of encouragement and consolation through conviction that God is the Lord of history and that he will soon vindicate his lordship in a final way. In some apocalyptic texts the actual date of this vindication is revealed, often in a highly symbolic way (all apocalypses feature rich symbolic language); other apocalypses oppose literal prediction, though still encouraging the believer to persevere because God will soon reveal his dominion over the powers of evil.
Various forms of apocalypticism can be found in late Second Temple Judaism, the world which formed the historical context for the beginning of Christianity. Without getting into the vexed question of how far Jesus himself was an apocalyptic preacher (there is no agreement on this among biblical scholars after a century of debate), no one doubts that those who wrote the New Testament were all deeply influenced by apocalypticism in various ways. The first Jews who confessed that Jesus was Messiah and Son of God viewed his Resurrection as the beginning of the apocalyptic new age and looked forward to the imminent return, or Parousia, which would establish his definitive rule on earth. One powerful strain in early Christianity, best reflected in the twentieth chapter of the Apocalypse of John, saw the Parousia as inaugurating the thousand-year rule of Christ and the saints on earth--the original meaning of the term millennium.
One still sometimes hears the argument that consciousness of the delay of the Parousia in second-century Christianity led believers to abandon apocalypticism, or at least to leave it to a lunatic fringe. Historical evidence, however, demonstrates that Christianity has never been without a strong element of apocalypticism, though this has been expanded, reinterpreted, and transformed in many ways. For every major Christian thinker, like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who turned against literal views of an imminent return of Jesus, there were others, like Bonaventure or Martin Luther, for whom the sense of the imminence of the End was a vital part of Christian spirituality, even though they often resisted exact predictions of the time of its coming.
But what is apocalyptic "spirituality"? It is not my intention to try to provide any easy definition of this often-misused word, or even to review its history. It does seem safe to say, though, that spirituality can no longer be understood according to an exclusive emphasis on inner experience--the soul versus the body. The growing popularity of the term over the past few decades, despite the often vague ways in which it is employed, reveals a range of meanings based on the conviction that Christian belief contains more than just intellectual and institutional dimensions--it also demands the engagement of the whole person through a commitment to transformative living in the world. Few forms of Christian spirituality--for good or for ill--have been more total than those rooted in apocalypticism.
Just as the term apocalypse was taken over by Christians from Jews, the New Testament teaching on the role of the Holy Spirit, or Spirit of Jesus, has its background in the Jewish notion of the breath, or spirit (ru'ah) of God. The Pauline doctrine of the spiritual person "who judges all things" (1 Cor 2:15) helps us understand spirituality (the word first appears in the fifth century) as the lived experience of the Christian who is totally rooted in the life-giving presence of the Spirit of the Risen Lord. From this perspective, one might argue that all Christian spirituality is, or should be, apocalyptic spirituality. I am using the term here, however, to indicate those forms of Christian belief which emphasize a conviction of Christ's imminent return and the effect this should have on daily life and practice.
Should Christian spirituality be apocalyptic as we approach the third millennium? When we look at the many forms of apocalyptic spirituality found in Fundamentalist Christianity, with their literal predictions of the imminence of Christ and the public stances this leads them to adapt, many may be inclined to think that apocalypticism produces an inauthentic, even dangerous, type of spirituality. Investigation of the literalist forms of apocalypticism in the history of Christianity tends to support these misgivings. The story of the followers of Joachim of Fiore, of the Dolcinists, of the Hussites, of the Munsterites, of the more radical forms of English Puritanism, of the Russian Old Believers, to name but a few of the more important groups, is troubling to say the least. Though we may admire some of the ideals for which these groups struggled and be appalled by the suffering they underwent for their beliefs, we are dismayed by their often ludicrous literalism, their exclusivity and opposition to all who disagreed with them, and especially by the heartless savagery they at times unleashed in their conviction that they thus contributed to the advent of the kingdom of God on earth. Apocalyptic spirituality often appears as a projection of the least noble aspects of human hopes and fears onto history and critics have pointed out that this does not necessarily result only from perverse understandings of the New Testament message, but that it has strong roots in the book itself, especially in the call for the just to rejoice in divine vengeance found in the Johannine Apocalypse (e.g., Apoc 6:10, 11:18, 16:5-6, 18:5-6, 19:2, 21:8).
On the other hand, we can also ask the question whether it is possible to reject the apocalyptic elements in Christianity without rejecting something that is and has been essential to it from the beginning. Given the historical misuses of apocalypticism, the narrowness of present-day Fundamentalism, and vapid media speculation about the new millennium, some will say that this is not only possible but necessary. Others will insist that essential aspects of Christian belief were formed in apocalypticism and it may be difficult to remove them totally from this foundation without doing serious damage. It is more challenging, though certainly more difficult, to consider what it might mean to try to uncover the spiritual resources still to be found in the Christian apocalyptic tradition.
I have no simple formula for how to recover an authentic and enriching apocalyptic spirituality. I will, however, suggest some possible starting places and strategies. In order to explore the issue of the renewal of apocalyptic spirituality, I think we need to begin with an honest appreciation of the ambivalences of apocalypticism. One of the most striking facts about the history of fervent expectation of the End is the way in which it has always had both positive and negative sides, that is, capacities for use and misuse. A consideration of some of these polarities raises central questions for any contemporary apocalyptic spirituality.
A primary factor in apocalypticism's broad appeal is how it answers to the anxiety we all face in the midst of the confusion of history, both the history of our own lives and the wider story of the race. Where have we come from? Where are we going? Do our lives belong to some meaningful whole? Apocalypticism introduced the concept of universal history, first into Judaism, and then into Christianity and Islam. This alone makes it a worthy topic for study, even if it is difficult for contemporary believers to feel totally comfortable with traditional ideas of universal history in the light of our current global perspective and modern scientific cosmology. Despite these difficulties, Christian faith does entail the conviction that history has meaning, a meaning derived from conviction that all things will reach completion in Christ. Though this sense of the universal significance of history found in Christ has been one of the positive elements in apocalyptic traditions, its negative side has been equally obvious in the claims of apocalyptically-minded Christians to have been given control over history, even a blueprint allowing them certainty regarding the signs of the times and the approach of the End. The sad history of even the best-intentioned representatives of literalist apocalypticism indicates the power of this delusion.
One way of avoiding this danger has been to replace the sense of the imminent End of history with an immanent, or inward, expectation of Christ's coming into each person's life, especially at the moment of death. But this has often led to a privatizing of the apocalyptic sense of universal history to such an extent that hope for the Lord's return becomes a purely individual experience (as suggested by some of the demythologizing eschatologies of the mid-twentieth century). This seems to rob history of a dimension that is integral to Christian belief.
Apocalyptic confidence in God's control over the course of history and its End is the ground for other significant aspects of apocalyptic spirituality, each of which, however, has a corresponding dark side. Apocalyptic expectations form an intricate combination of optimism and pessimism--pessimism about the current state of the world under the control of the forces of evil and optimism about the coming era when God will triumph. Even though most apocalyptic scenarios of the End see evil increasing until the final showdown between Christ and Antichrist, the summation of all human opposition to goodness, the deepest current in apocalypticism is optimistic in its conviction regarding the eventual triumph of justice.
Apocalyptic pessimism can be a powerful force for good, especially when it empowers believers to identify and combat the demonic elements of injustice and oppression found in social, political, and ecclesiastical structures. But apocalyptic groups have often channeled their pessimism into withdrawal from the world to await divine destruction of the tainted order. At other times their opposition to evil has been the source of violent revolutionary action. To what extent can such reactions be legitimated, even within dire situations of injustice and persecution? This is one of the essential questions that an authentic apocalyptic spirituality must address.
Hope is one of the three theological virtues. No tradition of Christian spirituality has done more to cultivate this virtue, especially in its universal dimensions, than apocalypticism. Against those forms of Christian thought which hold out no expectation for any real improvement on earth, but place all our hope in heaven, early Christian millennialism and its subsequent revivals, especially the tradition dependent on the twelfth-century visionary Joachim of Fiore's predictions regarding a coming third age of the Holy Spirit, have looked forward to a new divine action leading to a higher stage of salvation history. The many forms of such optimistic millenarianism have two things in common--none has yet been realized; the desire they represent refuses to die. Important theological voices have judged them to be dangerous innovations based on merely human aspirations, but this has done little to lessen their appeal.
Apocalyptic spirituality's emphasis on the importance of moral decision presents a comparable ambiguity. Though apocalypticism views world history as already determined by God from all eternity, it insists on the necessity for personal choice in the midst of the crisis of the present struggle between good and evil. Such decision is given heightened importance by seeing it in the light of the final choice betwen good and evil that determines the whole course of history. This feature of apocalyptic spirituality can work both for good and for ill.
Patience and endurance, as the expression of an inner decision to remain faithful to the divine command in the face of temptation, persecution, and death, have been hallmarks of apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity from the beginning. This faithfulness to God is not individualistic--apocalyptic spirituality has always insisted that the saving decision is made in and with the body of believers, even if these are conceived of as the persecuted few who have refused the mark of the Beast (see Apoc 13:16-17). We are not saved alone; nor are we damned alone. Nevertheless, stress on the importance of a definitive decision for God in the light of what is perceived as the last time for choosing has often led to black and white judgments about what is right and wrong, and (more tragically) who is right and wrong. From this flow other consequences. Fear of sin among apocalypticists has often entailed hatred of sinners; willingness to undergo persecution based on the conviction of ultimate vindication has at times facilitated a transition from the status of persecuted to that of persecutor. To deny that smugness and vindictiveness have often. been part of apocalyptic spirituality is to deny the record of its history.
So perhaps it may be best after all to jettison apocalyptic spirituality as we approach the new millennium--to think of it as part of the childhood of Christianity: a neurosis we are endeavoring to overcome. There are, however, reasons why such a simplistic solution may involve as much loss as gain. In large part these reasons rest on two elements central to apocalyptic spirituality that do not, I believe, involve the kinds of ambivalences discussed above.
The first of these aspects is the apocalypticists' sense of the majesty of God. There are few places in the Old and the New Testaments where more effective witness is given to divine transcendence than in the apocalyptic texts in Daniel, the Synoptic Gospels, Paul, and especially in John's Apocalypse. While there are certainly other parts of the Bible that present pictures of God's absolute sovereignty over creation, it is not by accident that the most effective pictorial representations of divine majesty, like the shining mosaics of early Christian basilicas and the impressive sculptured portals of medieval cathedrals, drew their inspiration from the portrayals of divine majesty in John's Apocalypse, especially in its fourth and fifth chapters.
The second reason involves apocalypticism's stress on the transcendence of death. Apocalyptic literature, at least from the time of the Book of Daniel (see Dan 12:2-3), insisted that God, in his goodness, majesty and justice, will give his faithful ones a reward beyond human hope, the gift of overcoming death itself. The survival promised in apocalyptic texts was more than just the immortality of the soul that pagan philosophers had taught; it centered on the resurrection of the body--a belief difficult, even absurd, to human reason. The confession that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead in bodily fashion was the beginning of Christianity. Paul's ringing statement, "If Christ has not risen, vain then is our preaching, vain too is your faith" (1 Cor 15:14), underlines the bond between apocalyptic teaching regarding the resurrection of the dead and the Resurrection-witness of the earliest Christians. Although the Resurrection of Jesus, as well as that of his followers, has been understood in many ways over almost two millennia, it is hard to separate this fundamental Christian confession from its roots in apocalypticism.
If essential elements in Christianity were born in apocalyptic expectations and have continued to be shaped by them in varying ways over almost two millennia, this suggests that abandoning apocalypticism is perhaps not the best answer. A return to literal apocalypticism is equally misguided, because such a perspective fails to appreciate the ambivalences of apocalyptic spirituality discussed above. Purely immanent and private reinterpretations of apocalyptic beliefs also have their problems, especially their tendency to eviscerate the commitment to justice and the hope for renewed divine action in the world that are among the essential positive values of apocalypticism. The social critique implied in biblical apocalypticism is important for keeping Christians honest (or at least nervous) about how far they can ever commit themselves to accommodation with injustice in the present world order, as well as for empowering a hope for the future that is more than just world-denying. It is in the midst of such positions and counter-positions that the search for an authentic apocalyptic spirituality must be conducted.
This difficult task needs both honesty and discretion. It also needs good examples. So, I would like to close by noting three creative reappropriations of apocalyptic spirituality in recent decades, though the fact that these choose different aspects of apocalypticism to emphasize will indicate how complicated the question of apocalyptic spirituality remains.
The power of apocalypticism to galvanize protest against demonic forces in history is not dead in our day. Consider two cases, one poetical, the other exegetical. Ernesto Cardenal, the revolutionary Nicaraguan poet, published his "Apocalypse" in 1965 when the threat of nuclear world-destruction was at its height. Cardenal's poem explodes the traditional symbols of John's Apocalypse and then reassembles them in combination with contemporary technological images to create a potent critique of a society gone mad in its quest for self-destruction. I quote from the opening lines:
I saw an Angel (all his cells were electronic eyes)
and I heard a supersonic voice
saying: Open up the typewriter and type.... The message typed by the electronic seer is a dire one:
and the third Angel set off the warning siren
and I beheld a mushroom cloud above New York
and a mushroom cloud above Moscow
and a mushroom cloud above London
and a mushroom cloud above Peking
(and Hiroshima's fate was envied)....1
Like his biblical model, though, Cardenal concludes his account of world destruction with an expression of hope for a new heaven and a new earth, conceived of as a higher stage in human evolution.
Twenty years later, the South African pastor Allan Boesak, in solitary confinement in a South African prison, received what he called an "angelic visitation" that allowed him to put the finishing touches on a commentary on the apocalypse he had been working on since 1980. Published in 1987, his Comfort and Protest. The Apocalypse from a South African Perspective uses John's revelation to challenge readers to choose once again between God and Caesar and utterly reject "those powerful and mighty men in top hats, sashes, and uniforms who threaten and maim, kill and destroy, and then go to prayer breakfasts and call upon the name of God."2
Finally, and to some surprisingly, I would point to Pope John Paul II. In his apostolic letter Tertio Millenio Adveniente (November 10, 1994), the pope proclaims that "preparing for the Year 2000 has become as it were a hermeneutical key of my pontificate" (par. 23), noting that he had referred to the millennium in his first encyclical (Redemptor Hominis, 1979) and in the long encyclical he devoted to the Holy Spirit (Dominum et Vivificantem, 1986). If Cardenal and Boesak appeal primarily to the power of apocalyptic spirituality to strengthen opposition to the appalling evils disregarded by so many Christians, the pope, though never slow to point to what Dominum et Vivificantem called "the signs and marks of death" found in contemporary technological and scientific culture, primarily seeks to harness the optimistic aspects of the apocalyptic vision to encourage a new openness to the Holy Spirit and the evangelization of the entire world. While cautioning against any return to a crude millennialism, Pope John Paul clearly believes that hope for a future "more spiritual" age is an integral part of Christian teaching.
Each of these contemporary witnesses provides us with an example of the power still present in apocalyptic spirituality and the word of prophecy upon which it is founded. They have heeded the message of 2 Peter: "And we have the word of prophecy, surer still, to which you do well to attend, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in you hearts" (2 Pet 2:19).
(1) Ernesto Cardenal, Apocalypse and Other Poems (New York: New Directions, 1971), pp. 33-34. (2) Allan A. Boesak, Comfort and Protest (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), pp. 127-28.
RELATED ARTICLE: APOCALYPTICISM: A FORCE FOR GRACE ... OR EVIL
...Historically, apocalypticism has been the protest literature of out-groups. It thrives in moments when stable cultural systems are undergoing breakdown and provides, by its characteristics separation from the wider culture, a way of getting outside the reigning structure--where reverie and dream can obtain a hearing. That is, it suspends the reality principle and creates space for options, for musing on what if's, might be's and should be's. As such, apocalypticism can function as either grace or evil force. On the one hand, it is the brewing place of scapegoating pogroms, crusades, revolutions and holy wars; and on the other, it can be a culture's way of declaring that conservatism does not suffice, that no society can prosper without qualitative growth. In this sense, millennial visions contain the seed of the future, feeding on despair to engineer horrors or on hope to generate promises.
The second-century Book of Daniel, for instance, arose out of the oppression Jews felt at the hands of the Hellenizing Ptolemies, just as the "War Scroll" of the Qumran commune on the shores of the Dead Sea in the first century set the stage for the Jewish revolt against Rome in A.D. 70. In mid-19th-century America, the problem was industrialization. The new factory system had flooded cities with vagrants, young single men and women without land, families or social support. Alcoholism, depression and violence became epidemic. The streets, like today's, were anarchic, city governments paralyzed and the churches ineffective. Only the revivalist camp meeting reached these transient, rootless people--and told them that their dreams and wild utopian imaginings were precious blueprints for the future. From the outset, however, those susceptible to conversion (to the new middle-class virtues of thrift, industry and self-reliance) were set off by their pessimism from the optimistic (and better-educated) Swedenborgians and spiritualists of the time. Poor and ill-educated, working-class people often despaired of human nature and saw little prospect of real social reform. How appealing, then, the message that individual reform was possible, that the last would be first, and that the current evil system was doomed to the wrath of God.
The appeal of this message is only a little less real for those hurting today--in an era of declining middle-class income, deindustrialization and the dislocations of the new global economy. It is also clear why an apocalyptic vision can go so wrong--and end in conflagration. In isolation, it tends to foster a society of children who have no past, only the present and future. Msgr. Ronald Knox put it well in his classic book Enthusiasm (1950). Extreme millennialists, he argued, lean toward a doctrine of total depravity of all but the elect, and thus despair of politics. Worse, they are "ultrasupernaturalists," for whom grace does not build upon nature, but comes to destroy or replace it. Against a charismatic leader (like David Koresh in Waco) then, critical reason or a system of checks and balances often gains little purchase. And opposition or persecution--like the F.B.I. blaring rabbit squeals and rock music into your ears, much less an M-60 tank bearing down on you--simply fulfill the prophecy that Satan's forces will make war on the Lamb and His saints.
BERNARD McGINN is the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He received an S.T.L. from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and an Ph.D. from Brandeis University. Dr. McGinn has taught at the University of Chicago since 1969 in the areas of Theology and History of Christianity. His major writings have been on the history of apocalyptic traditions and Christian spirituality and mysticism. He serves as Editor-in-Chief of Paulist Press's Classics of Western Spirituality Series.…