During the coronavirus pandemic, interest in apocalyptic fiction has increased. This may be somewhat inevitable as the ‘end of the world’ has long been a popular theme in science fiction or fantasy literature. Through exploring such fiction, we can imagine real risks to the future of humankind, explore the problems caused by the onset of global unrest and imagine what survival strategies might allow individuals to persevere in a post-apocalyptic world.
Many of the imagined risks that appear in science fiction do not stray too far from reality; the unknown threats that arise from the evolution of a powerful artificial intelligence, the possibility of nuclear war, the wholesale misuse of medication, devastating asteroid strikes, an unstoppable ecological crisis or a global pandemic. In fiction at least, there are many likely candidates that challenge the stability of human civilisation and could effectively topple the societies we live within.
Quite understandably, strong religious themes weave their way through science fiction though it must be stated that the religious concepts are often over-simplified or inaccurately portrayed. It goes without saying that fiction should be allowed generous levels of artistic license. In this spirit, writers have explored the afterlife, angels, creation myths, fictional religions, theocracies, colonisation, sin and salvation amongst a variety of other themes, such as suffering and the redemptive power of love.
There is something vaguely narcissistic about exploring apocalyptic thinking because when we are pondering the end of the world, we are also typically thinking about ourselves. Yet, there is something universally appealing about exposing our imaginations to our worst fears secure in the hope that salvation remains a possibility, at least until we learn the eventual fate of the characters. Perhaps this is why the horror genre remains popular throughout the world.
Whether we are religious or not, events that play out during a pandemic can be reminiscent of biblical themes. The fallout from the pandemic gives us a sense of something lost almost as if the world still needs redemption. A sense of nostalgia for the way things were before the crisis hints at the retrospective sense of loss felt by those expelled from the perfect garden of Eden. But following redemptive efforts to alleviate suffering, there is also the hope for restoration. In this sense, our search for wholeness does not lie in the simpler times of our past but in the future where we help to build a new earth of peace and justice.
The word apocalypse from the verb apokalypto meaning ‘to reveal’ comes to us from the final chapter of the Bible. Also known as the Book of Revelation, the text is filled with unusually colourful symbolism. Such literature was hugely popular two thousand years ago and remains so to this day even amongst people who do not strictly adhere to a religious tradition. Perhaps this broader interest suggests that the religious instinct remains alive and well today albeit as a largely unexplored undercurrent in many people’s lives.
While there are religious denominations that favour a literal view of the Book of Revelation, the Catholic perspective encourages a non-literal interpretation of the symbolic depictions in the book. The mention of strange looking animals, colours, garments and numbers as well as the use of vindictive language are generally considered to be literary devices that illustrate God’s abhorrence of sin and our trust in God’s providential care of the wider Church.
When I think about God’s providence, I am keenly away that the Catholic view of fate chimes well with a theme espoused in the ‘Terminator’ franchise – ‘There is no fate but what we make’ – a perspective on fate referenced by the Taoiseach of Ireland Leo Varadkar during a speech in which he launched a range of restrictions to help the country deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
While Catholics reject pre-ordained fate in favour of free will, the Church recognises the destiny of creation and God’s invitation to us to co-operate with his will. In that sense, personal agency is never a simple matter of individualism because we exist in a broader network of social bonds that involve supports and obligations. No one person fails or succeeds alone. We each depend on others.
Catholic social teaching urges us to strive to achieve the common good in all circumstances by weighing various goods against each other, prioritising the greatest goods at all times and accepting that the relative value of any good can change with changing circumstances. All of this requires discernment, adaptability and perseverance. It also means that there is no such thing as a dead end.
Given God’s providential care, the Book of Revelation urges us to persevere in our faith with fortitude even amidst threats of adversity as we wait for the fulfilment of God’s sacred promises. While the decisive struggle of Christ and his followers against evil during the time of crisis described in the book is long past, the text remains meaningful for Christians today.
In the face of suffering or any global crisis in today’s world, we need have no fear of the future when we remain true to our faith. Even death itself is not the end for we are victorious in Christ. This gives us something good to think about as reports of ecological damage have become more urgent in the 21st Century and as a global coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the globe. This does not mean that we should be complacent about the challenges that we face. Instead, it encourages us to think about the actions we can take to preserve and propagate goodness in the world.
When it comes to preserving goodness, we can all think in different ways. We might look for goodness in ways that were successful in the past, we might seek goodness in an idealised view of the good life, or we might search for goodness in the new ways that have helped us get through our time of struggle. All three approaches will impact the future of the societies we live in.
Despite the provocative horrors described in the Book of Revelation, its lasting message is one of the consolations and hope available to those who dare to have faith. In this light, the book continues to be as important to people today as it was to the early Christians of the first century. With faith in our hearts, our ability to change the world for the better and our daring hope of heaven, apocalyptic thinking is very clearly not a dead end.