Since the beginning of recorded history, humankind has maintained a strong fascination with its own demise. From its eschatological roots to the nuclear age and beyond, apocalyptic thought has permeated mass culture. However, the thematics of apocalyptic thought and therefore of its representation in culture have shifted, although certain consistencies have survived. Change and continuity of factors and components of apocalyptic thought may help us to understand change and continuity of our own mindsets.
Definitions may vary, but most would agree that the term “apocalypse” refers to the end of an era or even of the world. In ancient times, apocalyptic thought tended to focus on the day in which said era ended, commonly described in ancient texts as the “day of wrath.” Usually used in religious context, the “day of wrath” serves to embody the gestalt of ancient apocalyptic thought, at least in terms of Christian eschatology. The “day of wrath,” also in many cultures the “day of Judgement,” outlined apocalyptic thought with a focus on oneself; apocalyptic thought was centered around self-reflection and the apocalypse was viewed as the epic, ultimate decision of one’s fate. Even outside of Christian eschatology, most of these ideas still applied: most ancient apocalyptic thought was centered around the day in which the apocalypse occurred and focused on oneself. Cultural manifestations of these ideas are seen frequently across ancient cultures. Religious texts are the most blunt example of such manifestations. In Jewish eschatology, the coming of the Messiah is described in the Torah as an apocalyptic event. And, in the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, the Torah focuses not on the events that caused or the events that followed the flood but rather on the day itself that God flooded the Earth; it also emphasizes Noah’s significance in a way that carries the theme of introspection to the tale. A representation of later origin, hymns such as the thirteenth century (or earlier) Latin hymn “Dies Irae,” which literally translates to “Day of Wrath,” present the dawn of the apocalypse in a self-reflective light, as shown in the following excerpt from “Dies Irae”: “Worthless are my prayers and sighing, / Yet, good Lord, in grace complying, / Rescue me from fires undying” (Verse 14, Irons 1849). The hymn also focuses on the day of destruction itself, as expressed in the following excerpt: “Ah! that day of tears and moaning, / From the dust of earth returning / Man for judgement must prepare him, / Spare, O God, in mercy spare him” (Verse 18, Irons 1849). This individualistic, instantaneous approach strongly juxtaposes that of current day. Modern society tends to focus not on the downfall of oneself, but rather, on the downfall of humanity. Furthermore, the moment of this downfall is often difficult to distinguish from the sequence of events that encompass it and thus blurs the line between the pre-apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic. When analyzing ancient representations of the apocalyptic, one may almost always point to an exact moment within the narrative when one era gave way to another. In the case of Noah’s Ark, this instant was the moment the Earth was flooded. In the case of the story of Adam and Eve, their paradise was consumed by a flawed existence the instant that Adam followed Eve’s lead and took a bite of the forbidden fruit. Biblical and other religious narratives such as these are one of the biggest influences on human history, yet current narratives that portray the apocalyptic do not follow their lead.
Evidence of our primitive origins has faded in the thousands of years since biblical times. Although still built for survival, we have long since become preoccupied with civilization and societal endeavors. This preoccupation is perhaps the only thing that separates human from animal. In ancient times, societies maintained their survivalist foundations despite impressive levels of advancement. Fear of death was at the core of the motivations of every individual, and thus the heart of one’s existence was the fear and prevention of their own personal demise. History has consistently demonstrated this; the characteristics of the Early Middle Ages (5th-10th centuries A.D.) are a perfect example of such a demonstration. Host to severe population decline and increased immigration, this era was not a time of great empires, but rather, a time of mediocre, largely powerless kingdoms, the societies of which were unadvanced and unevolving. In fact, many historians refer to this time period as the “Dark Ages,” drawing upon the severe lack of literary and cultural development of the time (Berglund), serving to express the state of primitivity that humans existed in during this time. As made evident by the era’s drastic increase in migration, people of the Early Middle Ages were not rooted in their societies. Rather, they were rooted in their own mortality and were more affected by the deaths of individuals around them than the deaths of the societies around them, as kingdoms did so frequently collapse because they were small and unstable. In this sense, a death of an individual was perceived as more apocalyptic than an utter societal collapse. While this atavistic core remains relevant to those of modern times, its symptoms are concealed by the astronomical degree of progress achieved since biblical times. Derived from the inadvertent devotion of essentially the entirety of humanity, this progress has led to the complex, interconnected, and precarious global society of today. The weight of this devotion is what buries one’s atavistic foundations, as the core of the motivations of every individual shifts from fear of their own mortality to fear of societal mortality. This is at the center of the evolution of apocalyptic thought. In our minds, so much has been devoted to society that to see it crumble is more terrifying than to see ourselves crumble.
If our biggest fear is not of the death of oneself but of the death of civilization, then apocalyptic thought will manifest itself accordingly; as this is the case, apocalyptic thought has done such. Imagination of the apocalyptic in its most culturally significant platforms almost always consists of the deterioration of a society or of humankind. However, the nature of such imaginations begs the illustration of not an instant, but rather, a process. Modern cultural representations of the apocalyptic present themselves as such, and subsequently, the moment of transition between pre-apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic often blurs. This trend is further enforced by previously unimaginable crises of the past century, of which have left a remarkable impact on humanity’s perception of itself and of its society. Our culture naturally turns to history for influence, and historical events are often portrayed apocalyptically (Berger, XIII). From the Great War to the Holocaust to the current threat posed by climate change, the available influences all consist of the same foundation, in which an era or society deteriorates not instantaneously, but rather, through a process; ergo, the aforementioned trend in modern imagination of the apocalyptic can be seen not only as a product of the evolution of human fear, but also as an imitation of the models available to us.
However, the influence of these models on the way we think about the apocalypse also reveals a continuity in apocalyptic thought between biblical times and now. Nearly every culturally significant portrayal of the apocalyptic shares a common element: we are to blame. From the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to the Nuclear Age, our history reflects time and time again that we are the cause of our own suffering; and from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, the very earliest apocalyptic narrative of Western culture (Lisboa 230), to the iconic 1983 movie The Day After, our culture demonstrates time and time again our recognition of this role we play.
It is important to recognize the relationship between change and continuity in this case. Imagination of the apocalyptic has shifted from an individual to a societal scale and has evolved to take on the presentation of not just an instant of deterioration, but a process of deterioration, consequently blurring the distinction between pre and post apocalyptic. Yet, imagination of the apocalyptic has maintained a constant narrative of human causation. From this relationship, one may gain much insight as to the influence of diversion from our primitive origins and of functioning in a civil society on our mindsets as a whole. Simply the absence of apocalyptic thought, at least past an individual scale, lacking the incorporation of human flaw as a causation indicates our apathy towards thinking about the apocalypse outside of the context of human flaw. Therefore, apocalyptic thought is and always will be relevant and prevalent because it satisfies our need to address the unnaturality of the sheer amount of power we have and the instability it is accompanied by. In our primitive states, it would never have occurred to us to worry about or imagine a demise larger than that of ourselves individually. That we have developed the natural tendency to imagine the apocalyptic in order to come to terms with our own power may serve as a demonstration of the degree in which we have diverted from our primitive origins. Humankind has conquered genetics and its survivalist orientation in favor of an existence of societal orientation. Atavistic fears have been overshadowed by civil fears. And the prevalence of apocalyptic thought attests to human awareness of the unnaturality of our current state of being. Hence, since and even prior to biblical times, apocalyptic thought has served as a manifestation of our awareness of our own unnaturality; this has and will remain consistent. Furthermore, as we divert more and more from our primitive origins, we are bound to tend to apocalyptic thought more frequently as our own potential becomes less natural and more precarious.
The role of apocalyptic thought in the story of human evolution reveals more than perhaps is first let on. Yet, representation of the apocalyptic may serve as a framework in which to study the big picture of the impact of civil and societal existence on our own thinking. Change and continuity in apocalyptic thought serves as proof of the astronomical extent of which we have strayed from our primitive origins and as proof of our own disconcertment with our own power.
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