Apocalyptic is making a comeback. This form of literature made a wide appeal during the last couple of centuries B.C. and the early period A.D. But it fell out of favor. Its bizarre imagery made it difficult to understand, and when the key was lost uninitiated readers were simply bewildered. It is not always easy to penetrate to the apocalyptist’s meaning, and people just gave up.
But the apocalyptists are not to be lightly dismissed. They wrote out of a deep conviction of the seriousness of their situation and of the importance of what they had to say. In many respects their problems were not unlike those of modern men, and it is not surprising, accordingly, that some today are finding this ancient form very congenial. It can certainly say some things very powerfully.
Apocalyptists old and new have a deep conviction that they are witnessing the collapse of a world. They are not troubled simply with a few personal problems; they see a whole world tumbling about their ears, a way of life passing away. The old familiar world has gone forever, and men are apprehensive about the shape of the new world to come—that is, if there is a new world to come. Some modern apocalyptists seem more than a little doubtful. They see the end of all things as upon us.
Little Judah in antiquity found itself in a position of considerable uncertainty at the time of the rise of the apocalyptic movement. There was a clash of empires that dwarfed the tiny nation’s puny might. The men of Judah might well feel that their best efforts under the circumstances were to no avail. There were, it is true, moments of triumph, as under the Maccabees. But these were all too rare. For the most part Judah was hopelessly outclassed and could do little but watch as its fate was determined by forces and nations beyond its control.
Sometimes it was the clash of cultures that created the problem. This was the period when Hellenism was sweeping all before it, and for loyal and faithful men of Judah this meant the denial of values they had held unflinchingly all their lives.
There were other factors, but these are enough to give us the feel of the crisis. The apocalyptists were men experiencing total disaster. The values men had always accepted were widely rejected. The forces that had availed to govern the world were no longer adequate. The whole world was crashing about their ears, and they were powerless to avert it.
Small wonder that in our day some are drawn to this kind of writing. The accepted values are often lost, as the hippie protest eloquently points out. And over all is the threat of a nuclear holocaust. This perhaps seems not quite as certain now as it did a few years back. But it has not been removed, and the fearful let their imaginations play with the prospect.
This brings us to a second major emphasis of the apocalyptists, their conviction that evil is powerful, far too powerful for good men to be able to combat it. In this we are seeing a major turnabout. In the heydey of evolutionary thought at the end of the last century and the beginning of this, there was a widespread conviction that men were getting better and better. It was only a matter of time before a solution was found for all our problems. Christians with their doctrine of orginal sin were dismissed as incurable pessimists.
But times have changed. A couple of world wars with a depression in between made it plain that man is not necessarily pressing on the upward way. Subsequently his nationalism, racism, and readiness to oppress his fellows underlined the power of evil within him. Ecological problems and the population explosion have convinced some that men are not much longer for this earth. A mood of pessimism is abroad.
This is the genuine apocalyptic situation. The classical apocalyptists saw no hope in the circumstances in which they were placed. They were in the grip of evil powers too strong to combat, caught in troubles from which they saw no exit open to men. All the best efforts of all the best men could not avail. Evil was seen as stronger than the greatest human strength.
With that there often went a rigid determinism. Men thought of supernatural forces at work in a way that would inevitably prevail. The modern equivalent is perhaps the conviction that science has shown we are all subject to natural laws and all we do and think is determined by what we are and by what happens to us. We are not free men but automatons caught in the grip of forces we cannot control.
All this, then, adds up to a modern picture that leaves us in a situation not so different from that of the apocalyptists of old. Like them we see a world that has entered on a new phase where we are no longer in control even of the things that have seemed so familiar. Old ways, old securities, old standards are gone. In vivid language modern apocalyptists are picturing the breakup of a universe. As Earl Rovit has put it, “The metaphor of the Apocalypse is our best model for viewing our contemporary situation. It alone gives us a large and flexible mythic form that is grand enough to allow a full expression of our agonies and aspirations.”
But in much modern apocalyptic there is missing the most important note in the classical variety, namely, the firmly held conviction that God is in control. The apocalyptist of ancient times might be pessimistic about man’s capacity to deal with the situation, but he never doubted God’s. He might feel caught up in the grip of forces too powerful by far, but he was sure that the forces that gripped him were in turn gripped by God.
There were differences among the apocalyptists in things that were of much more than passing importance. Some thought there would be a Messiah before the end and some thought there would not. Some looked for a kingdom set up on this earth and some expected the earth to pass away and be replaced by something different. And there were other differences. But more fundamental than all their differences was their impressive agreement in the basic thought that in the end God would do what pleased him. They thought of a judgment day when men would give account of themselves to the supreme God.
This gave meaning and dignity to life, a dimension we desperately need to recover from the classical apocalyptists. It is one of the tragedies of the modern world that those who have splendidly recaptured so much of the classical apocalyptic spirit and vision have all too often lost that which was its mainspring, its faith in the living God.
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