The current political climate and presidential campaign are unlike any in my lifetime, and probably yours. There is a good deal of bi-partisan agreement that the choice is between bad or worse (there is dispute over which may be which). Some political pronouncements have taken on apocalyptic overtones, in effect declaring, “If X is elected, civilization as we know it is over”. One tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker announces a frustrated allegiance to a planet-ending outcome: “Giant Meteor 2016, Just End It Already”. Geopolitical realities elsewhere in the world—global terrorism, ISIS barbarities in the Middle East, Iran’s and North Korea’s aggression and nuclear programs, the territorial ambitions of China and Russia—all reinforce a sense that history seems to be spiraling out of control, perhaps headed to its climactic conclusion. Are these just normal paroxysms of fitful human progress, or some of the signs of the return of Christ and the “end of the age”? (Matt. 16:3; Mark 13:1-4; Luke 21:11, 25; Acts 2:16-21; Joel 2:28-32)? Time will tell, but we are not given an exact timetable; we are told to watch and be ready (Matt. 24:36-25:13; Mark 13:32-37; Luke 12:35-40).
The “end of the world as we know it” also exercises an influence on our cultural imagination, especially in film and television. There have been over 250 doomsday movies, as well as many more that incorporate some kind of “apocalyptic”—end of the world—theme. Over 100 of them have been made since 2000. In the past twenty years, television has witnessed a boom in apocalyptic shows, the current most popular one being the soap opera with zombies, The Walking Dead. God is conspicuous by his absence in most of these pop-culture apocalypses. The end of the world is almost never a divine judgment or even a destiny descending from a transcendent realm. Certainly, Christ does not come again in glory to bring in the kingdom of God. Instead, the end of the world is threatened by man-made, natural, or alien-invasion disasters. And often the end of the world can be, and frequently is, averted by human imagination and determination. Yet our popular fascination with apocalyptic movies and television seems to indicate that we all have an awareness that our history has its appointed conclusion, that the end of our story has already been written. 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. Some of these films can also be engaging and enlarging as well as entertaining, making us aware of things we did not know, or making us look at old things in new ways. 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 end is not only an end; it is actually a new and glorious beginning, inaugurated by Christ’s return; as Jesus promised: “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and glory” (Matt. 24:30); as the angels announced: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11); as the Nicene Creed expresses: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
The Apocalypse will 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”; God will live with us and we will live with God, forever (Revelation 21:1-5).