The idea of an apocalypse is terrifying for a people and culture under the pretension that everything is under our control—and that our best hope is to continue to feel in control.
In politics today, apocalyptic thinking on the right and the left is based on an apocalypse that is sure to harm us—but is not so unwieldy that our total control could not avert it. Meanwhile, the Christian idea is nearly the opposite: Embracing apocalypse would not only prepare us for the reality of the world to come, but it involves an acceptance of the world as it is and our role in it.
Political imaginings of apocalypse are of events that we might prevent if only everyone else would get on board. In this way, the apocalypse is not so much focused on the event itself, but on other people’s stubbornness. We are condemned not necessarily by God or by our own deeds and thoughts, but by our neighbors’ degraded political views. Because of this, the apocalyptic thinking dominating our politics is anti-humanistic since it depends on broad, explicit, and implicit condemnation of our fellow human beings—and ultimately, of our own existence.
One version of apocalyptic thinking on the right is lamenting the ever-encroaching immorality of others and “the culture” in general. We are at risk of losing America as we know it—that is, our communities have transformed such that they are “unrecognizable” and constantly on the verge of irretrievability. It’s the language of carnage and nostalgia.
On the right, the moral dualism of apocalyptic thinking moves from character and values outward to actions. We are doomed because evil people act in such a way that makes our way of life inhospitable.
For a significant segment of conservative Christianity in America, there is an entire subculture—including works of literature, advocacy organizations, and media pundits—premised on an opposing force that will make it impossible to live in this country as a faithful Christian.
As Peter Manseau observed, there is a common form of ideation in conservative Christian culture that imagines scenarios in which one must greatly sacrifice, even to the point of death, in response to a developing persecuting culture. Manseau cites the disproven narratives that formed around the Columbine shooting in 1999, in which the gunman reportedly asked a student whether she was a Christian and shot and killed her because she said yes.
But Manseau has identified this kind of thinking elsewhere, including during the pandemic—pointing to a TikTok video depicting a woman who denies the vaccine (portrayed as the mark of the beast) on threat of death. After she is killed, she arrives in heaven to receive a “Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant” as her eternal reward.
Ostensibly, conservatives believe such a future might be avoided. If the culture changed and people’s hearts were transformed, then evil thoughts would no longer flow from their minds, nor evil deeds from their hands. But what hope do we have for such transformation?
According to believers on the right, we can pray for it. But while we wait for God to intervene, this kind of apocalyptic thinking can lead to a logic of rationalization that justifies previously unthinkable behavior in light of the perceived existential threats.
Alison McQueen, author of Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times, argues in an interview that “apocalyptic rhetoric creates a false sense of moral clarity. … Once we see ourselves as engaged in an ultimate battle against evil, we are often more willing to use terrible means—war, torture, genocide, nuclear annihilation—to achieve our ends.”
Apocalyptic thinking is common on the political left as well, but it tends to begin with an assessment of action which is then used to make moral judgments about people. The primary mover in apocalyptic thinking is not who people are but what people do. On the right, there’s a fatalism concerning people’s behavior; on the left, a technocratic confidence in the right activity resulting in the right kind of outcomes—if only everyone would get on board.
This progressive mindset, of course, amounts to fatalism by way of a scenic route. This has been the course of many environmental debates. Climate change is cast as a threat of biblical proportions with consequences that could nonetheless be mitigated if collective action were taken on a set of prescribed political policy solutions.
Here’s another difference between the Left and the Right: On the right, apocalyptic thinking moves from the cultural to the political. On the left, apocalyptic thinking moves from the political to the cultural and individual. Climate change is first a political and systemic crisis—which seeps into the private domain in ways that mirror the apocalyptic thinking of the right.
The commensurate response on the right to the Left’s apocalyptic thinking is often death by martyrdom, as Manseau recognized. The heroic response to the coming apocalypse is that of the Christian who won’t deny Jesus in the face of an evil murderer—the libertarian who won’t let government mandates dictate their action. Amid cultural degradation or carnage, the question is always implicit, and often explicit: “How are we supposed to raise our children in this culture?”
In the Left’s response to climate change, as both a policy matter and a personal matter, the ethics of conceiving a child—and therefore by logical inference, the value of human life itself—are also brought into question.
A 2021 article in The New York Times, which bears the already-dehumanizing headline of “To Breed or Not to Breed,” profiled would-be parents who have shut off the possibility of having children of their own due to fear—and, according to the article itself, a misguided assessment of the positive impact childlessness might have on climate change.
The author cites a 2018 Morning Consult poll which found that one in four childless adults cited climate change as one reason they do not have children—offering a window into the apocalyptic thinking of the Left. It’s worth pointing out that this thinking, though premised on fears of insecurity, is more likely to be held by the most economically secure.
We regularly attribute suicides in this country to laws that are passed and prejudices that are held, but we have a popular culture that regularly embraces, and even extols, apocalyptic thinking. This inescapably leads to the conclusion that life is not worth living, or that certain social problems would improve if only some people did not exist to begin with.
Once that door opens and that question is asked, everyone feels the pressure to justify their existence. And then we expect them to be comforted by the cute slogans and meaningless gestures of the Peloton instructor who says they believe in you and that you’re crushing it—or the women’s cosmetics advertisement model who insists that everyone, especially you, are beautiful.
Apocalyptic thinking in politics is full of misdirection. As much as it seeks to find factual, substantive support—it is ultimately therapeutic. It is related to optimism and pessimism, entrepreneurialism and cynicism.
But true apocalypse is indifferent to these dispositions. Apocalyptic events reflect an intrusion of reality—the actual state of things—into the life we thought we were living.
The kind of apocalyptic thinking we’ve described so far is an escape hatch from reality, a way to avoid responsibility for the life we have. Whether it’s the anti-natalist for climate action or the anti-vaxxer concerned about the mark of the beast, people who push rational arguments often fail to face their deeper assumptions about the kind of world we live in and our place in it.
In 2012, Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles wrote an article for The Atlantic with the headline “How Apocalyptic Thinking Prevents Us from Taking Political Action.” In it, the authors describe a culture drawn to the “apocalyptic storyline,” which imposes that storyline on a range of theoretically possible but unlikely events or developments.
They write that “the danger of the media’s conflation of apocalyptic scenarios is that it leads us to believe that our existential threats come exclusively from events that are beyond our control and that await us in the future—and that a moment of universal recognition of such threats will be obvious to everyone when they arrive.”
They argue that these kinds of scenarios obscure real threats, such as climate change—saying that society’s efforts to address climate change have been hampered by apocalyptic thinking.
“Global climate change is not an apocalyptic event that will take place in the future; it is a human-caused trend that is occurring now,” they write. “And as we expend more time either fearfully imagining or vehemently denying whether that trend will bring about a future apocalypse, scientists tell us that the trend is accelerating.”
Gross and Gilles’s essay predicted—much to their chagrin, I’m sure—the plot of the Oscar-nominated film Don’t Look Up. (Although, before we think of them as prophets, they also critiqued media for “equat[ing] the remote threat of a possible event, like epidemics, with real trends like global warming.” Oops!). But the movie does exactly what Gross and Gilles criticize—directly compare climate change with an earth-destroying comet.
In the film, scientists discover a comet heading toward earth. They are foolish enough to believe that by clearly communicating the scientific fact that a catastrophic event is about to take place, they can move politicians and the public to put all their energies toward averting the disaster.
Instead, self-serving politicians, big corporations, a profit-driven media, and an unserious and distracted public ignore them. Everyone dies, even though they all should have seen it coming. Everything they needed to avert the disaster was known and available—everything, that is, except for the collective will to act.
This is how apocalypses are typically portrayed in Hollywood, but one recent movie takes a different approach. In Arrival, an unexpected outside force bursts onto the human scene. Almost every human being in the movie—particularly the governmental authorities—expects this outside force to harm them, and they come up with completely ineffective, counterproductive ideas about how to protect themselves.
The more aggressive and antagonistic those with power and access get, the worse the situation becomes. That is until Louise, played by Amy Adams, takes a risk and saves the day—not through aggression, but through vulnerability. However, she only acts after receiving a tool—a gift she could not have attained by her own effort—from the outside force indicating that it did not intend to harm humanity but save it.
Only in thinking about the apocalypse did I come to understand the movie in this way—and it has taken on new meaning for me in recent days. We live in a time of war and the threat of renewed nuclear aggression; of intense political sectarianism driven by aversion and othering; of the hubris of technocracy and the inevitability of progress.
The perverse worldview of our materialistic society holds that the perfection of the human condition lies just on the other side of less human life. And in some corners, it increasingly scoffs at the reality of a God in whose image human beings are made. In these times, I find that making oneself vulnerable for the sake of others—by trusting an outside force who wills our good—is profoundly countercultural.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus was sent to be among us, and he announced that his kingdom is at hand. We don’t avert disaster by seeking ultimate control and authority—by ensuring no outside force can interfere with our designs.
It is Jesus who offers us life to the full, and not in exchange for our scheming. We must set our sights on a design that is not of our making—and only there can we place our hope.
“Hope is that act whereby a person becomes aware of the distance of the Kingdom,” wrote Jacques Ellul, “and it clings to apocalyptic thinking. If the Kingdom is there, within easy reach, if the Kingdom is quite naturally within us, there is no need for hope.”
Some fear that if we dare to locate our hope outside of our circumstances, we will not be sufficiently motivated to deal with life as it is. But this concern stems from a view of life that is much smaller than the life that is available to us.
The kind of apocalyptic thinking that permeates our politics and lives is not insufficient because it gets everything wrong. Epidemics can happen and climate change is occurring—these threats pose real harm to the well-being of people. We can still take these things seriously and seek to play our part in alleviating harm to others where and when we are able.
Rather, this politically charged apocalyptic thinking is insufficient because it tempts us to view our lives through a lens of control that we do not have. Indeed, we hardly know what to do with the mere illusion that we could make everything right if the world bent to our will.
True apocalyptic thinking is not about the objective processing of facts but about a way of knowing. And for Christians, apocalyptic thinking should more commonly be thought of as hope. It is a confidence that, as Fleming Rutledge argued for CT, “the upper lights are burning.”
We are stewards of a world we did not make—and as we care for it, we rely on the loving grace of the one who spoke all of creation into existence. It is the Lord who will finally make it new and right, whose justice is perfect, not proximate. And his kingdom will have no end.
Michael Wear is the author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America. He runs the Reclaiming Hope Newsletter with his wife, Melissa Wear.