Australia is burning. It’s been burning even from the beginning of its springtime. The fires will not relent for some months to come. And then California and parts of other western states will take their turn before the fire of climate change. It is like a blow torch sweeping over the earth between the episodes of floods in Indonesia, Bangladesh or North Carolina. It is an apocalypse.
Apocalyptic. The word flows through the news reports beside “catastrophe” and “wake-up call” for the near brain dead. In the night I turned this ancient Greek word over and over in my mind. For most of us it signifies destruction in the end times, the razing of the world as we know it. As I chew on the word I realize it has two meanings for us, one ancient and Biblical, the other contemporary and scientific.
The Greek meaning of apocalypse is “unveiling” or “uncovering.” It carried over into Latin and then into English as “revelation.” Hence, the apocalyptic vision in John of Patmos’s writings at the end of the New Testament is usually titled “The Revelation According to St. John.” In this biblical literature what is revealed is the cosmic struggle between the forces of Good (God, Christ) and Evil (Satan) and the victory of God or Christ, ushering in a new era of peace and justice. The fallen age of sin in which we now live is succeeded by an age of righteousness. Apocalyptic in the Bible is a prophetic vision revealing the enormity of evil in our world and the greater power of God for transformation according to God’s purpose of Life. Thus, John’s Revelation concludes with the famous passage:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” (Revelations 21:1-5a)
Biblical apocalyptic is a prophetic vision calling us to judgment, purging us so that we can live into God’s act of redemptive struggle on our behalf to claim a redeemed world, whether through the destruction of the present order or its perfection in God.
A scientific vision, based in evolutionary theories, does not see our present apocalyptic time as a struggle between Good and Evil. It is the natural consequence of the way humans have been living in the fossil-fuel era of the last two centuries. The inexorable laws of physics that explain greenhouse emissions and global warming are not evil. They are simply “the way things are.” While we can call our normal way of industrial life sin and perhaps even evil, the apocalypse we see in these fires and floods is not the work of Satan. Our present course of human behavior ensures that we will extinguish the very conditions of human life. The earth will go on without us and many other species that have shared our ecological niche in the evolution of this planet. Our descendants will be no more. God will have a new earth without us, God’s failed ecological experiment. Apocalypse is simply the inevitable outcome of the way human beings have developed.
Both views of apocalypse shape our vision and our arguments today. The biblical vision can easily fuel the survivalist ethos portrayed in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Tara Westover’s family in Educated. For McCarthy, however, the world they survive into is the burned cinder we see today in the Australian outback. For Westover’s isolated Mormon family in Idaho, we presume, it is John’s “new heaven and new earth.” Neither, however, responds to the cry of the scientific apocalypse that, though the laws of climate change are unalterable, our collective behavior might, just might, be able to change enough to avert total destruction. The outcome would not be a new heaven and a new earth, but it might be livable for some, at least after horrendous warfare over the spoils.
I would like to find a way to claim both—the optimism of John’s apocalypse and the scientific call to change our collective ways short of extinction of a human-friendly planet. But that requires a planet-friendly humanity. The fires in Australia and California may illuminate our way toward planetary redemption, but they may also frighten us into acquiescence to an inevitable destruction. Apocalypse invites our decision and we should be trembling, awestruck, as the smoke rises in God’s temple that we call earth. The decision is upon us.