Thinking about the apocalypse, I construct four categories that describe some various positions we might occupy in relation to this possible Big End. (Already my obsessive-compulsive need to categorize is working to counteract one result of the apocalypse: the destruction of all categories.)
One, which we might refer to as ‘religious fanaticism’ (without condemning either religion or fanaticism), encompasses those who believe in an impending apocalypse, and who believe they will be on the ‘right’ side; after the scum has been washed away, these people will populate the post-apocalypse world.
Another, ‘apocalyptic nihilism,’ includes those who believe in the impending apocalypse, believe the scum will be washed away, and considers themselves to be on the side of the scum; they likely don’t believe in a post-apocalyptic world, because if you wash away the scum, there isn’t anything left. A third vision, ‘uncomfortable liberalism,’ would be constituted of those who believe in the impending apocalypse, and believe the scum will be washed away, and even believe this is a good thing, but are uncertain which side they are on; self observation does not lead to any clear feeling that they will be around or not, post-apocalypse-wise.
Finally, a last group consists of people who don’t believe in an impending apocalypse. These people would seem to be uninteresting, at least for the duration of this article; they are the unbelievers, as such having little apparent value to offer the student of apocalyptic culture.
‘I, and a few others, know what must be done, if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?’ – Albert Camus
Common to the three ‘believer’ groups is the notion that a time will come when huge change will occur. The stereotypical ‘religious fanatic’ looks forward to this apocalypse, because it heralds a new and better world, free of all which makes our current situation nearly unbearable. The opinion that the world is currently in sad shape is shared, of course, by many; apocalyptic religious fanatics are not the only people who think the world is in dire straits.
Confident, though, in their belief that a great change will come, after which the world will no longer be evil, these believers await the apocalypse with something approaching greed: death and destruction can’t come too soon in this scenario, for those who die will be Others.
The need to make changes now, in the real world, is of little import here. What matters is that when the apocalypse comes (and come it will), God is on our side.
Sharing a sense that the world is evil, even reveling in that evilness, and also welcoming the apocalypse, the ‘apocalyptic nihilist’ is not as different from the above fanatics as might appear at first glance. My desk dictionary offers two definitions of nihilism: the first, ‘a negative doctrine, the total rejection of current beliefs,’ the second, ‘a form of skepticism that denies all existence. ‘ The apocalyptic nihilist is closer to the first of these definitions, for existence as such is not denied; rather it is posited that all existence is negative, which is not the same thing at all.
In fact, it would be hard to imagine anything further from the philosophy of the apocalyptic nihilist than ‘skepticism,’ for the apocalyptic side of these people is ‘proof’ in itself of a belief system. One ‘believes’ in the apocalypse. We can argue over minor issues, such as whether the apocalypse is forthcoming or is in fact already upon us, but beneath all arguments is a simple belief in the apocalypse as real.
Ultimately, this belief makes our apocalyptic nihilist all-apocalypse and no nihilism, at least according to the first definition above: to welcome the apocalypse with open arms does not represent ‘the total rejection of current beliefs’ but merely chooses a particularly destructive and enticing belief system that pretends to non-belief even as it anticipates its own emergence.
Somewhere between the religious fanatic and the apocalyptic nihilist we find the uncomfortable liberal, honest (if confused) in their belief in some ultimate apocalypse, but not nearly as certain as our other groups as to the imminence of the apocalypse or their place in the great changes to come.
Aware of the problems in the modern world without believing all is lost, believing in their souls that there is ‘more to life’ and that a final judgment is due without knowing how their report card will read when God performs the final tallies, our uneasy liberal vacillates between attempts to make the world a better place today and to bring their own affairs into proper order on the one hand, and bouts of vague despair and occasional ‘sinning’ on the other hand.
This describes most of us, perhaps, on our best days and on our worst, unwilling to give up the notion that the modern world can be fixed, driven by unspoken beliefs, neither fearing the apocalypse or welcoming it, but rather putting it off as long as possible. The real world awaits us, and we will do our best in the time given us, hopeful that we’re passing whatever tests we are being given. Popular representations of these varying responses to a possible apocalypse are generally either simple-minded or disingenuous.
As fundamentalist groups are fond of pointing out, much of our popular culture ignores the existence of religion as a major factor in our lives; it is the rare sitcom family that attends church or thinks about religious matters specifically as religious matters. Instead, religion is treated as just another topic of the week: last week D.J. sneaks off to church, this week D.J. masturbates, next week Rosanne loses her job.
This is not a confrontation with the religious, but instead a disingenuous ‘solution’ which substitutes benign neglect for any real attempt to deal with religion. We applaud a Rosanne for its insistence on the importance of the real world of the here and now, but we can’t look to such programs for assistance as we await the apocalypse, because they condescend to the apocalypse, deprioritize it, as if there are more important things to worry about than the possible end of the world.
Not that the culture of our religious fanatics and apocalyptic nihilists is any better, although they certainly have different priorities than Rosanne. But a firm belief in both the apocalypse and our assigned role in that apocalypse effectively shuts off most responses beyond carrying a sign reading ‘The End Is Near.’
This world is too simple, the options are too clear. Whether we place ourselves on the side of God or the side of the scum, we know who we are, we know what is coming,
we know what we want when it gets here. Most liberal culture sidesteps the issue by sweeping apocalyptic thoughts into the closet; the fanatics and the nihilists sidestep the issue by assuming ahead of time that everything has already been decided.
There are no choices, only waiting. Which makes Michael Tolkin’s movie The Rapture all the more interesting, because here is one movie that refuses the easy solution. Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a bored and jaded directory-assistance worker who prowls airport hotels with her friends, looking for new sex partners.
Sharon gradually becomes disillusioned with her life, and discovers a religious cult that believes in the upcoming ‘rapture’ whereby the true believers will be whisked up to heaven forever.
The liberal fantasy would be to reject the rapture as too literal; the nihilist would go back to having sex; the religious fanatic might focus on the rightness of Sharon and her mates as they await the oncoming apocalypse. But Tolkin tries something more complicated, more disturbing. He accepts the apocalypse; the rapture in his movie is real, not imagined, and he does not condescend. The believers are correct, the rapture does happen.
But by the conclusion of The Rapture Tolkin has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the demands of the God of the apocalypse are too great, too inhumane, too ghastly to accept.
When Sharon refuses salvation, she does so not because she thinks she is at one with the scum, as would the apocalyptic nihilist; not because ‘the rapture’ isn’t real, which would be the liberal version (the apocalypse always hiding in the closet, never making itself seen). She refuses salvation because God is wrong; God exists, but God is wrong. She turns her back on God, and the audience is fully aware of what she is giving up: eternal life in heaven. She goes back to the humble.
After The Rapture, most other attempts to confront the apocalypse seem a little shallow. Confronted with salvation, real and tangible, yet also with full knowledge of what is demanded of the believer, The Rapture simultaneously believes and rejects. To do one or the other is simple; to do both is impossibly heartbreaking and startlingly brave. And yet, for myself, even The Rapture is too romantic.
Many of us who have fallen away from earlier faiths can appreciate the middle-fingered response of the humble in the face of the terrible demanding God of the apocalypse, but it is ultimately a dishonest appreciation, a nostalgic return to a time when a rebellion against The Father felt like a revolution against all oppression.
When The Rapture presents a real God, it ups the ante considerably for those who would rebel, makes fearfully real the consequences of such a rebellion. Yet The Rapture also makes its heroine more heroic. One cannot magnify the importance of the oppressor without simultaneously enlarging the role of the heroine. And heroism is not the only thing that matters.
The Rapture, like our groups of believers, treats the apocalypse as truth. It feeds on that supposed truth, as do our other believers; the apocalypse, and our response to it, defines our actions. At some basic level, all believers desire an apocalypse, a utopia, a definable, different, perhaps distant future where our beliefs will be proven true. Often this desire for a definable future either apocalyptic, utopian, or dystopian, inspires us to great achievements; the attempt to fulfill these desires can make heroes or heroines of the least of us.
However, this desire for definition, these heroic acts and individuals, do not make the desired apocalypse or utopia ‘true. ‘ For the unbelievers among us, the apocalypse is not pending, the apocalypse does not exist. Once we have had our rebellions, we are left, with the humble, in a decidedly non-heroic state. And there will still be work that needs to be done, and we will need the help of all the disillusioned who staked their claims on the existence of the apocalypse.
Long after the apocalypse, long after the revolution, long after utopias have come and gone, there you will still find the humble, igniting fires at the feet of our heroes and heroines to light our way into the darkness.
Printed originally in Bad Subjects