THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT continues to exercise a fascination on the popular imagination. In fact, it’s growing. The number of apocalypse-themed movies from 2000 to 2009 doubled over the previous decade, and are on pace to be doubled again by the end of this decade. Why? One reason is that the keepers of the popular culture—the artists, the writers, the filmmakers—are always mining the cultural deposits bequeathed by Western Civilization to cobble together compelling stories to draw audiences and make money. One of the larger deposits, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, is the linear view of history, with its one-directional timeline leading to a definite ending of history; the End Time, Judgment Day.
OF COURSE, POP CULTURE APOCALYPSES ARE NEVER FULLY TRUE-TO-JUDEO-CHRISTIAN-TRADITION apocalypses (even the few faith-based efforts fail, in my opinion, to convey either accurate theology or a serious engagement with the intersection of God’s providence and geopolitical reality). The end of the world is almost never a divine judgment or even a destiny descending from a transcendent realm; never a heaven-brought or God-wrought reality. God, in fact, is conspicuous by his absence in the vast majority of pop apocalypses. Instead, the end of the world is threatened by man-made, natural, or alien-invasion disasters. And, almost always, the end of the world can be, and usually is, averted by human imagination and determination. The almost-end-of-the-world becomes the occasion to congratulate ourselves for our indomitable “human spirit”. Even the few films with genuinely world-ending scenarios, such as On the Beach, are only morally cautionary and never actually intended as “prophetic”. The world could end this way, they want to say, if we don’t mend our ways and alter our course. But of course we can mend our ways; we can overcome adversity; we will stop the world from ending: “Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!,” is the exuberant outburst from one of the main characters in 2013’s Pacific Rim (an alien invasion apocalypse).
As well as a quintessentially American celebration of human optimism, know-how, and will at the core of many apocalypse films, some end-of-the-world stories exercise a cathartic effect on audiences, like the effect of Greek tragic drama, according to Aristotle. This is especially true of the serious “doom from space” movies, like Deep Impact, and the biological/zombie apocalypses that are more than gore-fests, like I Am Legend, The Last Ship or The Walking Dead. These films offer a vicarious, if somewhat superficial, cathartic purging of anxieties and fears—not wholly unrealistic ones—about cataclysmic natural disasters, epidemics, or NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) terrorism. But this cathartic effect is fleeting, truncated, and artificial, much like the sense of danger and the adrenalin rush from the highly controlled “adventure” of an amusement park ride. What is more, contemporary Western—and particularly American—culture cannot abide tragedy for long, and even the end of the world must have a happy ending, or at least a few plucky survivors who bravely carry on, seeking redemption in the post-apocalyptic wilderness.
I THINK THERE IS ONE DEEPER REASON for the proliferation and popularity of apocalyptic stories and films. I think we all have an inner awareness, a deep knowing that our history really does have its appointed conclusion, that the end of our story has already been written. Every major world religion embraces a story of the end of the world. Perhaps Jung would have called this part of our collective unconscious, but I think it is only just below the surface of our everyday lives. And it is perhaps no accident that the increase in the number of apocalypse-themed films in the past few decades has coincided with the rise of increasingly chaotic geopolitics. The rise of Islamic terrorism, Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs has certainly not damped down our sense of history hurtling towards a conclusion. This sense of the world’s ending regularly emerges in our cultural expressions, where, for many of us, the popular entertainment of movie-watching has replaced religion as the place where we communally remember and rehearse our shared symbols and archetypes. We look to movies and television—the way we used to look to the Church and worship—to tell us who we are and where we are going, even unto the end.
Popular entertainment can be diverting, sometimes in a good way. It is not wrong to occasionally turn aside from the world for awhile and be entranced by the story-telling of a film. A good movie can also be engaging and enlarging, making us aware of things we did not know, or making us look at old things in new ways. This is true for some of the more thoughtful apocalypse movies. But even the best ones miss crucial points, especially the main points of what the “apocalypse” even means, and what the “end” of history actually brings.
“APOCALYPSE” DOESN’T MEAN “END’; IT LITERALLY MEANS “UNVEILING”. It comes from the Greek New Testament term apokalypsis (άποκάλυψις). The Latin equivalent is revelatio; “revelation”. An “apocalypse” is an unveiling; something once hidden is now disclosed. The best-known such unveiling is the New Testament book of Revelation (in the original Greek, “Apocalypse”), which records a series of visions of the apostle John around AD 80 – 90. The book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret—nearly everything after chapter three is symbolic—but it does describe a set of cataclysmic events leading to God’s final judgment of humanity. So it’s not surprising that “Apocalypse” has come to mean “end of the world”.
But the end of our history—this history we now inhabit—is not the only thing revealed in the book of Revelation. The Apocalypse will also be the unveiling of true Reality; the way things really are, beyond all our illusions, delusions, and denials. We will be made to realize that our vision has been small and clouded; that there are infinite heights and boundless horizons to the meaning of our existence, welling up from the infinite depths of God’s love. There will be an end of the world as we know it, this world of suffering, disappointment, and death. But there will be “a new heaven and a new earth” after this world has passed away. Everything will be made new, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”, and we will live with God (Revelation 21:1-5). Someone should make a movie about that.