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Episode Summary

Most people aren’t preoccupied with Satan, demons, or the end of the world. But like it or not, many Americans are greatly concerned with these topics. A 2010 poll from the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of white evangelical Christian adults surveyed believed that Jesus Christ would return to the earth within the next 40 years. That was significantly higher than any other religious group. Just 32 percent of Catholic respondents agreed, for instance.

Speculating about how the world ends is probably as old as humanity itself. It was pivotal to the early formation and growth of Christianity. And early leaders of the faith frequently suggested it was just around the corner in their own lifetimes. But over time as those hundreds of predictions fail to come true, End Times literature and that tradition faded away in Christianity.

But it came back with a vengeance in the mid 20th century after the development of nuclear weapons, especially when white evangelicals began to emerge as a political movement in the 1970s.

Talking about all of this with me in this episode is Christopher Douglas, a professor of English at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. He is also the author of “If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right.”

A video of our conversation is below. A lightly edited version of the audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here with me today, Chris.

CHRISTOPHER DOUGLAS: Thank you for having me, Matthew.

SHEFFIELD: So before we get into the details here, let’s discuss briefly the idea of apocalypse. What does apocalypse mean? People oftentimes associate it with the end of the world, but that’s not entirely true necessarily.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, that’s right. Apocalypse is actually a literary genre that develops in the third century BCE and has another sequence of developments in the second century BCE.

And really, what we’re talking about when we [00:02:00] talk about the genre of apocalypse is a kind of new vision of cosmology for how the world works, what God’s plan is, who God’s enemies are, and what’s going on behind the scenes as it were.

So one of the things apocalypse does in the past, in the third century BCE, some of the early apocalypses actually don’t appear in the Bible, they are called, for instance, the Book of the Watchers, and the Astronomical book. And they take up this very strange passage, you probably remember it in Genesis 6, there’s a very strange passage about how the “Sons of God” came down and basically mated with human women. And they birthed a race of giants that were prone to wickedness. The early apocalypses took up that theme and wondered about the cosmic sphere.

In this apocalypse, it was attributed to Enoch who was the in the seventh generation of humans. I think this is Genesis 4. It just says Enoch walked with God and then he was no more. And so he, in a sense, gets whisked up into heaven. That’s a proto-Rapture. So Enoch, these apocalypses are attributed to him and he has a heavenly guide there because he can’t interpret all the sort of fascinating things he sees in that cosmic sphere.

So the second stage of development in apocalypse was in the second century BCE. And there we get, for instance, the Book of Daniel, which is in the Bible, probably second half of the Book of Daniel probably written around 164 BCE, but there’s also other pair of Biblical apocalypses, like the Apocalypse of Weeks and the Animal Apocalypse as well.

And what this is occasioned by is the persecution by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who was the Seleucid emperor in charge of what was basically ruling Judea and Jerusalem at the time. And Antiochus basically practiced like a state terror against the Judaeans. So he prohibited circumcision, seems to have placed a statue of Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem and massacred the inhabitants, sold some of them into slavery.

So the early development of apocalypse was basically a reaction to state terror by [00:04:00] empire, but being controlled by, by other people, by outsiders. And it’s characterized, and I think this is the important part for us now, it was characterized by an extreme moral dualism in which earth was basically a mirror of cosmic conflict.

And basically what that meant was that your domestic or your mundane political foes were actually the enemies of God. And that’s how Antiochus, for instance, was being imagined.

But there was going to be an imminent intervention. And then, a great battle between God and his cosmic archenemies, who were controlling or influencing the mundane rulers, like Antiochus.

And I think for the first time, you also get a kind of proliferation of divine beings and apocalypse. And I think that’s one of the things that also shows up in contemporary uses as well.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And we’ll get into that for sure. But it’s also the apocalyptic literature of that time period, it was a way of saying that: ‘Our religion teaches that God is all powerful and his will prevails all the time, so how come his people are being captive and desecrated and persecuted?’ It’s a way of saying that actually the good guys are going to win in the end. And there’s even a term for that in the literature, theodicy, right?

DOUGLAS: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah. So apocalypse, in a sense, is a kind of national theodicy because it’s trying to answer the question of, how could all these things be going wrong for God’s people, if they’re trying to do the right thing. Sometimes in the Hebrew Bible the answer to why are things going so wrong is because God’s punishing us because we’ve started worshiping foreign gods or something like that. But if you’re trying to do the right thing, if you’re trying to circumcise your children, your boys, but the worldly ruler is preventing you, that can’t be attributed to God’s discipline anymore.

So the problem that apocalypse tries to answer is if this isn’t God’s punishment, then why are things going so terribly wrong? So it’s in that sense that it’s a kind of a, it’s a theodicy of national suffering that now attributes the problems that the Judeans are facing not to God, but to God’s enemies, basically to God’s cosmic enemies and to their worldly rulers.

SHEFFIELD [00:06:00]: And that idea got transferred or accepted within Christianity when that came along later, and there are several books in that tradition, the apocalypse tradition, but of course the most famous one being the Apocalypse of John often called the Book of Revelation. And there’s a similar type of theme in that book as well, in these other Christian apocalypses.

DOUGLAS: That’s right. The way we can think about the early founders of Christianity, John the Baptizer, Jesus of Nazareth, and then Saul who becomes Paul, these were all apocalyptic Jews, and they were immersed in an apocalyptic worldview in which, God is imminently going to come and overturn the sort of evil, worldly rule.

So Christianity, basically starts out as an apocalyptic theological tradition. So apocalypse is baked into Christianity, right from the start. And you’re right. Revelation is the most famous kind of Christian version of apocalypse. We again get a sort of vision of the divine realm by a human writer who can’t understand what he’s seeing. And therefore things have to be explained to him by a kind of angelic being, and especially for the symbolism.

Revelation is filled with all this strange and wonderful symbolism, there’s the beast and Babylon and all that stuff.

And Revelation is the best known version, a Christian version of apocalypse. It ends with this sense of, Jesus’s final words in the Book of Revelation are ‘I am coming.’ So it encapsulates that sense really that this is all going to happen. I think the early Jesus followers believed that they were years or decades away from seeing that return of Jesus in power to defeat his cosmic enemies, but also the Roman Empire, which was at that point, it seems from the Book of Revelation, basically persecuting Christians.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And there are other Christian apocalyptic, early Christian apocalyptic texts. Some even within the gospels themselves, the Book of Matthew has several chapters about Jesus himself claiming that, the temple would be destroyed and that he would be returning.

And those kind of were expanded upon in the Apocalypse of John, but there were some other ones as well. And as you said, that tradition really, it [00:08:00] was baked in. And it was highly influential. A lot of early Christians decided to just withdraw from society and go and live in their own communes basically, which eventually turned into monasteries.

And some of these groups were actually practicing celibacy because they thought there was no point to having children because they’re just going to die. They may die in the apocalypse. And that it’s a sin to have sex. And so we’re going to remain pure for Jesus.

And certainly you can see that within some of the Pauline letters where he says it’s better to not be married and to save yourself for God.

DOUGLAS: Unless you’re going to burn with passion or desire.

SHEFFIELD: That’s right. And so that tradition really, it continued for a number of years and gradually faded, as I said in the introduction, after Jesus didn’t come back. The world didn’t end. But in the Americas later, you began to see the emergence of some Protestant faiths that were apocalyptic.

So like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, which calls itself the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meaning they see themselves as the being near the end of the world. And so, there was a renewed interest in speculations at that time in the 19th century. And one of the other sort of interesting developments that took place around this time, and maybe somewhat earlier, was the sort of the re-emergence of Satan as a spiritual foe, much more prominent than he was in the early Christianity. And certainly within Judaism.

In the book of Daniel, Satan’s not even there as a character, right?

DOUGLAS: That’s right.

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