By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell
Every year during Advent, the church has an apocalypse. Some people like to think of Advent as the church’s “new year,” but on hearing the lectionary readings for the second Sunday most of us come away in a decidedly more sober mood: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”
“Apocalypse” is a word that’s been thrown around a lot lately, and with good reason. Not only are we still in the grip of a plague that has killed over a million people and has shut down schools, churches, restaurants, workplaces, concerts, sporting events, and pretty much everything else that once constituted life as we know it, but this summer we also saw a stark rise in authoritarianism as peaceful protestors demonstrating against systemic racism and police brutality were violently attacked by their own government, while those in power tried to frame “anti-fascism” and “anti-racism” as forms of domestic “terrorism.” Widespread deception and lies from political leaders contributed to a surge in conspiratorial thinking, and there was a significant rise in various forms of denial, as more and more people fell prey to their own psychological defense mechanisms in an unconscious attempt to cope with the mounting uncertainty and chaos. Widespread belief that the coronavirus is a hoax, insane theories about Hillary Clinton running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza shop, and the conviction that the expansion of the Israeli state would bring about the end of the world were all considered as viable topics of adult conversation.
Meanwhile, as if to take a cue straight from the Book of Revelation, the whole of creation seemed to cry out with a noteworthy slew of natural disasters, which took on heightened symbolic meaning under the circumstances. Police in Texas were attacked by a rare swarm of 40,000 Africanized bees. One of the largest dust storms on record traveled across the Atlantic from Africa to choke the American South. And let’s not forget the record-breaking locust swarms, wildfires, and hurricane season, the infamous murder hornets, or the rivers in China and Israel that turned blood red. We even had a star disappear from the sky. Some people couldn’t help but wonder… is this the apocalypse?
Well, technically yes, I do believe that we are experiencing an apocalypse. But please note that I am using the term here in a technical sense. “Apocalypse” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the entire Biblical lexicon despite persistent efforts of Biblical scholars, clergy, and theologians to correct course on the matter. Popular conceptions of “the apocalypse” are still largely shaped by the secular film industry and the religious propaganda of fanatical evangelical sects, which bombard us with vivid imagery of planetary destruction. Thus, the end of “the world” is nearly interpreted as the end of the natural, material, created world. This “Gnostic” interpretation of the apocalyptic writings of the New Testament is, from an orthodox perspective, heresy. The whole thing can be dispensed of rather easily by simply consulting the Book of Revelation, which even when taken at its most literal level describes heaven as coming to be made manifest on Earth. In other words, even in a strict eschatological sense, the apocalypse is not about some future demise of the planet.
The Greek word apokalypsis means “revelation” or “unveiling.” Apocalypse is about vision and about perception. The apocalypse is marked by a transformed and spiritually-informed way of seeing that pierces through the veil of deception, egocentrism, fear, and confirmation bias that pervades our everyday life in “the world” and prevents us from confronting the truth about ourselves, one another, and God. The day of reckoning that the New Testament writers wrote about was a day of ultimate truth-telling, a day when “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” This is a day when all people everywhere will finally have eyes to see and ears to hear, and will be given the chance to turn from their narrow ways of thinking to walk in the way of Christ, which is the way of humility, and love, and justice, and peace. This new reality that the early Christians longed for was conceived of as “a new heaven and a new earth,” characterized in the second letter of Peter as a place “where righteousness is at home.” This is the ultimate paradigm shift that would fundamentally transform the way that human beings operate on this planet.
The ancients understood that such an “unveiling” would necessarily entail a dissolving of our current ways of seeing and being – our false pretenses of power, our illusions of security, and the ways in which we idolize earthly leaders and celebrities as gods. A “revelation” on this scale would also require a dissolution of the social, political, economic, and religious powers that conspire and collude to deceive the masses and maintain those delusions. It would expose the “strongmen” of this world for what they truly are: poseurs of Divine power who are in fact cowards and slaves unto death. On this day, God alone is revealed as the Creator and Source of all life, having a power that stretches far beyond whatever earthly powers any one individual might grasp for themselves within their short lifetime. Those with the will to witness to the truth, even at the cost of their own suffering, are the ones who are revealed on that day as truly strong.
But apocalyptic literature also reminds us that there are larger social and systemic processes at play in our world, which “invisibly” and insidiously conspire to deceive people in order to justify and maintain the conditions of marginalization, oppression, and injustice. Through political institutions, media, religious cultures, economic systems, maladaptive psychological defense mechanisms, and everyday group dynamics, these larger “forces” have a power that stretches far beyond the scope of single individuals to foster widespread confusion, suffering, and pain in ways that are difficult if not impossible to root out. The writers of the New Testament used a particular kind of language to identify these destructive forces, calling them “demonic,” and referring to them as “powers and principalities” or “Satan.” Such outdated terms may sound a bit too mystical or magical for us today, but for the Biblical writers they pointed very pragmatically to real phenomena that are very much still a part of the world. The early Christians believed that these forces literally existed in the air, hovering just under the clouds, and so they naturally assumed that the final battle between these powers and God would take place in the sky, which is why Paul speaks in Thessalonians about being “caught up” (harpazo) to the clouds on the day of the Lord’s coming. The various levels of heaven into which Paul and others were “caught up” at various times to receive their visions and revelations (see 2 Corinthians 12) offered a foretaste of the day when all would be brought into a complete understanding of the truth.
Admittedly, texts like today’s pericope from 2 Peter have a long and problematic history of interpretation, and have themselves been made to serve those deceptive forces that oppose the kingdom of God. This situation has led many progressive Christians to either ignore them in embarrassment, or reject them outright as dangerous. Even Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, commented on the widespread controversies surrounding John’s Book of Revelation, which was very nearly excluded from the Christian canon altogether. Several church leaders argued that it was, at the very least, not much of a “revelation,” since its vivid symbolism and allegorical imagery was far too obscure and difficult to decipher. To be sure, engaging with these texts in a preaching context requires careful study, deep discernment, and thorough clarification. The apocalyptic literature cannot be fully appreciated without a thorough understanding of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, nor can it be properly understood from within a context of privilege (which is perhaps why it was so perplexing to the patristics). It is only in the context of suffering and oppression that the full meaning of these texts can really begin to land.
However, now more than ever, I believe we need the message of the apocalyptic. Because when properly unpacked and contextualized, this strain of the Christian tradition provides us with a powerful resource for emboldening our faith and staying grounded in truth during times of great social upheaval. The apocalyptic tradition understood itself to be a continuation of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and like the prophets it offers a paradoxical balance between comfort and critique, offering hope and justice for the downtrodden while confronting and critiquing the complacency of the privileged, and challenging everyone to beware of the moral and spiritual dangers of colluding with those whom “this world” has deemed powerful for the sake of one’s own gain. As Gregory Stevenson writes,
“…on the one side are those who have encountered such hardship and suffering in the world that they are in danger of losing or distorting their faith. On the other side are those who have become so comfortable with the deception that ‘the kingdom of the world’ creates, that they are unaware of the danger it poses to their faith. The power of apocalyptic language lies in its ability to address both groups, because both groups share the same fundamental problem – a distorted view of the world… Both groups need an apocalypse, because both groups require a new vision of the world.”
In the midst of this 2020 apocalypse, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic unmasks the real values of so many public leaders and social groups, and as the veil continues to be lifted for so many white people who are becoming “woke” to the reality of systemic racism, and as the earth cries out with “the blood of Abel” in signs that speak to the unsustainable consumption practices of human culture (which are what caused those rivers to turn blood red, in both cases), we need both the challenge and the comfort of the apocalyptic, which promises us a day when the truth about the world will be revealed. Seeing things as they are can be painful, and that suffering tempts us with longing to retreat into the psychological safety of our delusions. Those who suffer to bear witness to the truth can begin to lose hope, believing that the forces of “this world” are too powerful to overcome. But the second epistle of Peter reminds us that when that day of vindication seems long delayed, we still must never give up our hope or our resolve. We must courageously continue in the work of the Lord, participating in God’s dream for humanity through acts of humility, solidarity, mercy, honesty, and love. Because the more we participate in the embodiment of that dream, the more people we will bring into that vision, and the closer we will get to manifesting the kingdom of God here on earth.
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 25.2.
 Gregory Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation, and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering, Abeline: ACU Press, 2013.