Death and apocalypse

This rather gloomy post title is inspired by an article by Ian McEwan in the Guardian on ideas of the end time, which is by no means as bad as one might expect from a non-historian and atheist. McEwan has a feel for the potency of apocalyptic writing and thought and he’s also alert enough to point out that the nearest we’ve come to the end is probably under John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is hardly an example of religiosity gone wrong. (Though it’s a shame that when he mentions the Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s end-time beliefs, he doesn’t mention the fact that he isn’t in charge of Iran’s nuclear policy).

But I think he’s still too ready to stress the historical continuity of apocalyptic thought (partly inspired by reading Norman Cohn’s ‘The Pursuit of the Millennium’), and not the very different social contexts in which it appears. As a result he doesn’t follow up on one of his key insights:

Furthermore, the mind is capable of artful compartmentalisations; in one moment, a man might confidently believe in predictions of Armageddon in his lifetime, and in the next, he might pick up the phone to inquire about a savings fund for his grandchildren’s college education or approve of long-term measures to slow global warming.

What McEwan misses is how historically specific such concern for the long-term is; today we in the West have far greater stakes and prospects in the future than we have ever had. The pension is largely a twentieth century development, as is the widespread use of the mortgage. To plan even for your children’s future, let alone your grandchildren’s, has until recently been an option only for the upper classes. It’s against this very different socio-economic background that we have to ask the key question: what is apocalyptic thought for nowadays?

As McEwan points out, Christian apocalyptic thought is most prevalent in the USA. This seems, on the face of it, surprising. Why not in the region where secularism has advanced furthest (Europe?) Why not in the countries where Christians are most likely to be persecuted (Middle East, China)? Why not in the countries where the poorest and most desperate Christians live (Africa)? Why should the end time so enthrall a country where Christians are relatively prosperous, respected and numerous? And why have the ideas proved so popular even during periods of relative international stability? (The first of the best selling Left behind end-time novels was published in 1995).

Fred Clarke in the midst of his painstaking dissection of the Left Behind novels, comes up with the concept of ‘martyr envy’ as one of the main reasons of the appeal of the books to American evangelicals. The prospect of the End Times provides a way of imaging the Christian life as an exciting adventure, the vicarious thrill of feeling that you too could be a hero if the chance arose. Such martyr envy isn’t new: as Robert Markus shows in ‘The End of Ancient Christianity’, there was a similar situation in the western Roman Empire in the late fourth century. The empire had been permanently Christianised, with no danger of persecution recurring, and with Christianity now becoming mainstream among all classes. The problem then became, how could Real True Christians distinguish themselves?

The solution in the 380s AD was monasticism and other forms of extreme asceticism; the fact that the solution today is often buying a DVD tells you just how seriously people really believe in the End Times. Serious apocalyptic believers, from the first disciples and the Montanists via Peter the Hermit’s followers down to the Jonestown mass suicides, have abandoned families and homes, rejected marriage and sex as an irrelevant distraction, sold what they have and given it to the poor. Those who remain in the settled life of the community almost always, deep-down, do not actually believe that the End Times are quite yet.

But there seems to me another reason why apocalyptic thought remains important in modern Christianity and that brings me onto death. One of the problems of those trying either to convert people to Christianity or to inspire the converted to a more committed life is how to overcome the tendency to procrastinate. Why should people commit and change now, when they could do so at a later date and still gain all the benefits of the next world?

The traditional answer to this for centuries is that people should remember the nearness of death. They may not have time for later repentance: this very night their soul may be required of them. Memento mori was a potent phrase for centuries, and it was potent because death could come so quickly and at such an early age.

One of the most striking articles I’ve read this year is Robin Fleming’s Bones for Historians: Putting the Body back in Biography,” in Writing Medieval Biography: Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow, ed. David Bates (Woodbridge, 2006), 29-48. This provides a synthesis in graphic detail of just how awful early medieval life could be, based on osteoarchaeology from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. At times the grim details become overwhelming, but one passage still stands out:

Sick children and dead babies…were part of everyone’s life. A statistic from Raunds, a community of some forty souls, gives some idea…Between the ages of four or five and thirty-five, a villager would have probably witnessed the deaths of well over thirty children.

Even though life expectancy had increased greatly by the nineteenth century, the possibility of such sudden calamities was still there. A book I’m reading on the Industrial Revolution includes an account by a doctor in Manchester in 1832: he saw a family of five all die within a day of cholera. Into the twentieth century, sudden and premature death was no novelty. In Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’, for example, she shows three members of a family of ten dying within ten years (one in childbirth, one in the First World War, one from unnamed causes). My paternal grandfather was an orphan at sixteen; when I was thirty and both my parents died, I was an anomaly among my friends.

The last fifty years have brought us in the West the hitherto unimaginable prospect of death no longer being routine. Even when fatal illness strikes, the demise is often extended, giving time for conversion, should that be desired. The urgency that the preacher and missionary has often demanded, the need for a decision made now, can no longer be justified by a claim of a lack of time for the individual. Perhaps the supposed imminence of the end for humanity is also acting as a partial substitute. At a conference I once went to on medieval apocalypse, someone commented: ‘there is no end to end times’. But the modern apocalypse, despite its formal resemblance to the medieval one, is like many religious traditions, really almost entirely different from its roots.


5 thoughts on “Death and apocalypse

  1. I agree that we suffer a kind of cultural & historical blindness when dealing with matters modern life shields us from: personal experience of war, the natural end of life, the likelihood of childhood mortality, the consequences of real disease and injury. For more definitions of “we” all the time, these things are handled or experienced by other people, and less our concern.

    Insofar as apocalyptic religions actually “recruit”, that’s a huge demographic shift in their prospective market share that means a new tack could be needed. If people don’t viscerally understand the real risks of life in the same way, those risks surely can’t have the same effect in driving their decisions and plans.

    I’m not sure the experience of difficult life is as influential as the tone used in conveying it, though. I’ve met a number of younger apocalyptic folks in my life, and even though they live the same easy life “we” all do, they use the same terms their grandparents did. The harsh judgement, the traditional plagues and tribulations. Further, modern “risks” and horrors they’ve never experienced first-hand, like computer chips and pornography and such, serve as substitutes for demons and worldly sin in many of their beliefs.

    It’s seems very rare that the cause of apocalypse is the group itself, after all. People far away, either geographically or culturally, are the culprits, and they’ll be the ones who really suffer. “Us”, here, well we’re the beloved and we’ll stand fast &c &c

    I’m reminded by a recent discussion in the world of conspiracy theory, which seems salient somehow.


  2. It may indeed be that visceral fascination with constructions outside and beyond all but imagined experience plays a part, at least in the forms of Christian fundamentalist dispensational apocalyticism. I remember Gen. William K. Harrison (ret.) coming to our evangelical boarding school in 1958 and speaking to us over the course of a week on the subject, with a forty-foot-long diagram of the End Times. The search for Biblical clues to define the chronology of ‘God’s Plan’ bears a crude resemblance to the manner of the making of ARGs.

    But it seems clear, in the millenia-long widespread traditions of such imagining there is a residue of something much more deeply sourced in the human psyche.
    It is finally a struggle with death; both the longing to dodge it or the desire to deal it, the two faces of the single coin.

    This is of course Magistra’s point. My dispute, Magistra, is with your framing, within a a temporally fluctuating direct experience.
    First it is not at all clear that awareness and fear of death are confined to humanity. Death, after all, is inevitable for anything that lives. One discovery after another questions the limits to the consciousness that humanity has by-and-large taken for granted as its unique possession, certainly within the mindset that equates consciousness with reason.
    The durability and prevalence of apocalyptic thinking argues for something reaching deeper than the roots of thought.
    I suggest it is the longing to seize control of death, to master our Master.
    On the one side it is woven together with threads of resentment, reprisal, revenge, justice, and vindication; the final rescue from humiliation and pain.
    On the other, it is as Magistra’s premise suggests, a longing for an end to confusion, contention, pain and defeat, an implacable final conclusion to indignity and suffering. A cry of “Enough!” that shatters the heavens and the Earth.
    But while the agony is variable, the end is not. We may speak speculatively of alternatives, of comfort, safety, and immortality, but our genetic, molecular memory is not so easily altered.

    Granted, the variable popularity of apocalyptic passion must correspond more closely to some historical circumstances than others. The hope for an end to pressing pain is logically greater when pain is more pressing; but it’s clear to me that something far deeper than Reason’s constructs is at work. Data sufficient for trustworthy understanding is not yet in hand.

    All in all and my comments notwithstanding, a splendid and provocative post.


  3. Thanks for pointing me to the McEwan piece. I’m going to try to post something more substantial in response to this and that over at my site.

    Anyway, your bit on the importance of the body really struck me and I think you’re absolutely right. Too often we forget about people as people. I also highly recommend Dan Reff’s recent book Plagues, Priests, and Demons that points out that discussions of the body and suffering often mean… bodies suffering.


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