The coronavirus has brought the apocalypse. I mean that literally. But that doesn’t mean the end of the world is coming.
What Is the Apocalypse?
The word “apocalypse” is rooted deep in the American psyche. From the early days of Pentecostalism in the 1900s that preached the imminent return of Christ (and therefore the judgment of the world) to persistent predictions of doomsday from hucksters trying to sell books and food. We’re primed to see any given set of terrible events as the end of the world, or as the obvious judgment of God against human sin. And we have consistently referred to this “end times” set of events as the apocalypse.
This is somewhat understandable. The Apostle John, way back in 90 A.D. (or so) wrote a strange, terrifying letter to the churches in Rome, Asia Minor, Jerusalem, and others. This letter was written in a style called “Jewish apocalyptic literature.” And because this book uses symbols that are violent and visceral, and the end of the book portrays a final victory of God over Satan and the powers of evil, it’s easy to think this is a predictive text. All those symbols look like something we need to interpret for our own time, looking for signs that might show *this* is what John the Revelator was talking about.
Such an approach ignores what Jewish apocalyptic literature is supposed to be, and what its purpose is. Simply put, “apocalypse” shouldn’t be understood as “the end of the world.” Instead, the word is better defined as “unveiling.” As in, a revealing of how things really are: what the human heart really desires, who is really in charge of all of this, and how empires and economies rule us in invisible ways. Other apocalyptic literature would include some parts of Daniel. There are really strange visions depicted in that book. Lots of talk of statues made of different material, unrecognizable beasts, and empty thrones. This symbolism was meant to encourage Jews in exile that God was still in charge, despite their exile from Israel.
The same is true for Revelation. You know what was happening at the time Revelation was happening? Lots and lots of persecution by the Roman empire. Christians needed encouragement that 1) the Jesus they followed was victorious in his death and resurrection, 2) God was still just and merciful, and 3) the Roman empire wasn’t the final authority. The symbols would have been easily understood by first-century Christians. John was not writing a coded letter meant for 21st-century Christians to discern when God might return in full force and vanquish his enemies. Nor was it written for modern Christians to feel like they have some insider knowledge about the end times and how it’s all going to go down.
So what does this mean for right now? First, it seems highly unlikely to me that this is some sign of the end times. Pandemics have happened lots of times in the last thousand years, and they’ll continue to happen. Scientists have been warning us about this for a while. We’re all quarantined in one way or another right now, but life, at some point, will continue.
I’m still inclined, however, to call this a kind of apocalypse. The real kind, not the pseudo-American kind. Why? Because this pandemic has been, and will continue to be, uncomfortably revealing of many things. When it started to become clear that SARS-CoV2 reached our shores, what was the public’s immediate reaction? Hoarding toilet paper. Buying an unnecessarily large amount of food, at the expense of others’ food needs. Others have taken advantage of low airfares in spite of the pleas from the scientific community and the government to stay home and socially distance ourselves.
This isn’t to say I’m innocent in this. I live in my head, and I’m an information hoarder. You know what I’ve spent my time doing this week? Swinging from obsessing over the news and whatever information I can get from social media to inattentiveness at home because of an increasing sense of anxiety. I have not spent all that much extra time with my kids. I’ve spent more time navel-gazing and worrying about how to be better informed.
The apocalypse is a great revealer, and that’s what this moment is. It’s revealing our deepest desires and inclinations. It’s revealing the kind of government we have, and who’s really in charge. It’s also revealing who and what we really trust. We’re only at the beginning of this whole ordeal, and we likely have a long way to go. Things will get better, and they’ll get worse. But we have an opportunity, right now, to be honest about who we really are and who we want to be.