I’ve been thinking a lot about the Apocalypse. That’s what you’re supposed to do during Advent, right? Think about the four last things, death judgment heaven and hell, and about the end of everything. The Daily Office readings for the past two weeks have encouraged this line of thought: from the Old Testament, the fierce denunciations of Amos, promising retribution to a self-indulgent society that exploits the poor for its own pleasures; from the New Testament, the letters to the seven churches that open John’s Revelations; and from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’s predictions of the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem.
The Scriptures are pretty clear and consistent in teaching that God is going to manifest his will for creation in a decisive way that involves cleaning up messes, putting things to rights, permanently dethroning those who have abused power, and getting everything the way he wants it. This decisive action, which may look pretty violent, is going to be the end of the world we know, but also the beginning of something very new. I don’t see how one can be a Christian and not take this teaching seriously.
But the doctrine of the Apocalypse, the unveiling of God’s will for creation, the end of the old broken world and the beginning of a new one, is kind of out of favor right now. On the one hand, there are large segments of the Church, particularly in American Evangelical Christianity, that are obsessed with it, to the exclusion of everything but abortion and homosexuality (which are apparently going to bring about the Apocalypse). On the other hand, I think there are large segments of the Church that are embarrassed by their brethren’s over-emphasis on the doctrine and prefer not to talk about it. Apocalypse? what’s that? That’s just something from a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode; averting the Apocalypse is what Buffy and her friends did on a weekly basis.
In his 2012 book Apocalypse Not, pagan and occultist John Michael Greer makes the case that the Apocalypse meme, as he calls it, derives from the Persian priest Zoroaster, who looked at the myths of cosmic regime change represented by the precession of the equinoxes and decided there would be a final, decisive cosmic change, in which the good god of light would prevail over the evil god of darkness and there would be no change. Greer sees the Apocalypse meme as an inherently punitive one; the believer in Apocalypse looks at the world and anticipates the day when everyone who doesn’t think, believe, feel, act like him will be punished, dramatically. He also points out that if Jesus was, as many scholars think, predicting the end of Jerusalem and the Temple in his apocalyptic prophecies, then he is in the very small group of seers whose predictions have verifiably come true.
My understanding of the Apocalypse, and of the four last things, does not require me to gloat over the torments of people who come out on the wrong side of the final battle. What has helped me lately to sort out my thinking on the end of the world is some works of fiction: The Last Battle, the final Narnia book by C.S. Lewis, and the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane.
The Last Battle is Lewis’s Narnian Apocalypse. In the previous book, The Magician’s Nephew, we saw Narnia created; now we see it destroyed. There is corruption and abuse of power; there is personal and social evil which must be resisted, even opposed with force of arms. But there is also the sense that Narnia’s time has simply run out. It was not meant to last forever. And in a sense, it will last forever as part of Aslan’s Country, the heaven into which the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve enter through their experience of Narnia. Narnia is a region in heaven just as England is, a dimension of God’s love and knowledge of creation.
Duane’s Young Wizards series comes at the issue of beginnings and endings from a partly mythic, partly scientific point of view. In Duane’s universe, the central moral issue is entropy. The universe does not contain enough energy to last forever; every action, every reaction, every transaction causes a loss of energy to the total system. Some things, however, cause a greater loss of energy than others, and thus further entropy. Cruelty, greed, indifference speed up the eventual heat-death of the universe. Kindness, compassion, helping slow it down and put it off.
Duane’s wizards are specialists in slowing down entropy by helping others. Their magic works with the actual physics of the universe and consists, to a great extent, of formal and informal persuasion, often of entities that ordinary people assume are insentient (such as locks on doors, old automobiles, and electronics made in Japan). But their work brings them into direct, often deadly conflict with the being who invented entropy in the first place, the one they call the Lone Power. The Lone Power (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch in physical manifestation) is the angelic being who introduced death and entropy into the cosmos, and he continues to peddle his inventions like a sort of travelling salesman, showing up whenever a species achieves the threshold of moral choice.
The universe of the Young Wizards is one very, very like our own, with the same sort of problems, the same sort of moral choices. And it’s a universe that’s slowly running down, like a wind-up toy–and so is ours. While the job of a wizard is to put off that final decay as long as possible, there’s also a glimpse of what will happen when the universe finally dies: The One, and the Powers That Be, and the wizards who have worked with them, will make a new universe without entropy, in which death, pain, suffering, decay, and loss are no longer an integral part of the scheme.
The universe is running out of energy. Our individual lives are running out of time. I won’t live forever, you won’t live forever, and the universe won’t last forever. What happens then? The vacuum of no time, no space, no being, where once was an entropic cosmos? Or the glory which is Heaven, Timeheart, Aslan’s Country? I believe in the Apocalypse because I believe in the latter option. I believe that God will start things over with a new story.
I don’t believe, though, that the end of the world as we know it will necessarily involve God finally strong-arming the human race into believing, submitting, and accepting due punishment. I don’t think the Apocalypse will look like we expect it to any more than the first coming of the Lord looked like it was expected to. And I don’t think the God who entered into a cluster of cells in a girl’s womb, was born in poverty and obscurity, and submitted to public execution is going to turn out to be a merciless bully when the veil is pulled back and his intentions are carried out. It wiil be the end of the world as we don’t know it and never imagined it, what eye hath not seen and ear hath not heard.