Apocalyptic – 100% Failure Rate

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The following extracts are from individuals trying to understand why people have believed, and continue to believe in the apocalyptic myth

Bernard McGinn – Chicago Divinity School

Apocalypses are deeply symbolic, deeply mythological. Apocalyptic literature is a re-invention of the mythological motifs going back to the ancient dragon conflict, of Sumarian mythology. So apocalyptic literature doesn’t work through discursive, rational presentation. It’s symbolic, it’s recapitulative or repeating, and it’s deeply emotional, in its appeal. …

The great motifs of the conflict between good and evil, that according to the combat myths, shaped the beginning of history, in both the Jewish religion and later in the Christian religion, are shifted, in a way, towards the end, so that history has a continuity, and it demonstrates the on-going conflict between good and evil, which will reach a final goal, a final solution if you will, when evil is ultimately defeated. So in a sense it’s about odyssey, it’s in a sense proving that God does indeed have control over history, and explaining why there is evil and conflict in the world at present.

I think it’s crucial to our thought today.  Even when we have secularized versions of the apocalypse as we often see today.  That is, we need to make sense out of history.  Both the individual history of our own lives, and the history of the race, and the history of the cosmos.  And one of the fundamental ways to do that, was the way of the apocalypse.  It’s not the only way, other societies have envisaged other modes of history, cyclical modes of history or the like.  But the apocalyptic mode is crucial to much of western history, and the three monotheistic religions. …

I think the central message is God’s absolute control, or lordship over history.  John would say that even though the history that we live in at the present, is a history of dire crisis, with the conflict between good and evil, nevertheless, he’s holding out the hope, the sincere hope to Christians that God is in control over that history.  And through tremendous trial and tribulation, and a certain kind of judgment and crisis, there will be a triumph that is sent to the heavenly Jerusalem. …

I think a lot of us are trying to make sense of life.  And we know that life begins at birth, and ends in death.  And in between that, that expectation of death gives structure to the way in which we live.  In that sense, what the apocalypse and the apocalypse mentality does, is to expand that individual sense of process, towards a goal, and try to incorporate history within that understanding.

Eugene Gallagher

The failure of things to happen at a certain date, doesn’t squash the human desire to make it good, just, a true world, and to make people at least more perfect than they are now.  So as long as there is a human desire to renovate the world, and to renovate individuals, there are going to be millennial movements.  So in some ways, the date is a non-issue, because that human desire will always be there.  The date focuses people’s attention and sometimes their activities and might raise them to a higher pitch. … I think what matters most in apocalyptic or millennium movements is that they are either dourly optimistic, or sunnily pessimistic.  That is, they know we’re in a bad time now, but things will be better, immensely better, almost immeasurably better in the future.  REM had it great.  People who believe in apocalyptic teachings say things like,  “It’s the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine.”

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James Tabor – University of North Carolina:

What I would characterize as the problem of apocalypticism is something just absolutely astounding when you think about it.  It’s a system of thought that has a 100 percent failure rate; that would be one way to put it.  That is, you think of all the vast range of history and which scenarios have been put forth:  This is the Antichrist; this is this; or this is that; this is going to happen. None of those things have turned out to be the case.  And yet the pieces get picked up again.  People open the Bible again.  They read it in a new way, in a new situation.  And I think that has to do fundamentally with the dynamics of the Biblical text itself, that these set pieces can move on through history, and the Bible and the place that it has in our culture, ensures that this will go on indefinitely, I think.

The idea endures because it’s in the Biblical text.  And it’s the text of the Bible, I believe, that gives power to these possibilities.  But to fit these possibilities with the real world, there’s such a juxtaposition and such a disjoining of events with fulfillment.   Prophecy is always reaching forward and predicting, but then the events themselves don’t necessarily follow.  So the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein is going to invade Jerusalem, and become the Antichrist.  But instead, he’s defeated.  So he’s not the one.  In World War II it was Adolf Hitler.  What a perfect Antichrist, even a persecutor of the Jewish people – but he commits suicide and is defeated by the Allies.  So again and again, we have this crescendo of possibilities that then become falsified by the reality of history.  And that’s the pattern we’ve faced throughout the ages.  And yet the texts are still there, predicting (if they’re read literally) that this is the way things will wind up; this is the way the end will come. …

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