Catastrophes of biblical proportions: why the apocalypse is back

Medieval painting of an apocalyptic angel playing a trumpet

In a parliamentary debate in London about climate change and ecology on 1 May, the debate turned to scripture to describe the scale of the problem. “We face catastrophes of biblical proportions: droughts, pestilence, famine, floods, wildfires, mass migration, political instability, war and terrorism. Global civilisation as we know it will be gone by the end of the century unless we act.”

The biblical language is no accident. The growing discussion of global climate and ecology in terms of an emergency goes hand in hand with a flourishing of religious expressions of grief and reflection that respond to worries over an uncertain future. Stefan Skrimshire, reporting on the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, points out that religious participation in protest is nothing new, but the way climate change is now discussed raises feelings of ‘existential’ anxiety and, with it, a new search for meaning.

Strangely, although dire and stressful, this vision offers a form of certainty and maybe even hope — where the right decisions can steer the planet from destruction to survival.

The language and imagery taps into something very old. Religious apocalyptic texts have often emerged at times of extreme crisis: invasions, occupations, real world violence. Life was often short and painful for audiences of these ancient texts; they faced immediate threats of enslavement, injury or death. Apocalyptic texts are varied and complex, with many meanings and purposes, but there are some common threads. They use fantastical imagery but often to refer to current politics. They draw on history and past texts to allude to current struggles. For their authors, an earthly crisis masks a deeper spiritual war between good and evil powers, a war that is more real than the events we can see and touch. And they invite the listener to hope that whatever is going on now, whatever disaster and destruction befall, good will triumph and a new world will be restored.

Despite the terrifying imagery, apocalyptic texts are meant to provide reassurance at time of crisis, to encourage the community of believers in the face of suffering. They are revived continually at times of crisis, through the medieval world and beyond. Because of its power and adaptability, apocalyptic thinking has survived to the present, but it has mutated into different forms.

Now, the apocalyptic idea of a spiritual war represented by earthly events is a strong undercurrent among the religious right in the USA, seeking to give simple meaning to a complex world. In this view, enemies or opponents are transformed into agents of evil. Through this lens, conflicts in the Middle East are viewed not as political struggles but as a fulfilment of a fantasy in which the forces of light and darkness act out an earthly battle. The consequences of these views, influential on the current regime, are dangerous and real.

There is another very different apocalypse too, shaped through images of climate breakdown and mass extinction. The modern apocalypse does many things that are opposite to the ancient texts. It draws on similar imagery and styles, but the aim is not to reassure, but to shake the comfortable from their complacency. It seeks to point out a hidden crisis, but a biophysical one. The modern apocalyptic literature is peppered with graphs and charts in place of fantastical beasts.

The more extreme new prophecies — though also widely critiqued — threaten the end of civilisation, though not time itself. It is humans who have caused it and humans who are meant to avert it. In this overwhelming scenario, the vision inevitably gets aggregated, totalised. Carbon reduction is positioned as a control lever to steer us clear of tipping points; systemic social and economic change is presented as a solution, almost as if it can be planned and rolled out, rather than an ever-present condition of life.

But this general vision of impending collapse doesn’t hold up for long. Some people on the front line feel as if the world has already ended, it is already too late, extractive industries and neglect have destroyed their homes or their livelihoods, rising seas have ruined their fields. For others, changes are barely noticeable and life goes on. This is no surprise. By definition, the environment is what’s around us, within reach, but environmental threats are surprisingly hard to pin down; they’re patchy; in some measures they unfold slowly, in others quickly; they are fluid, moveable, uncertain, unjust, human, contested, and there are many factors that can worsen or mitigate against them.

In this view, it may not be appropriate to talk about a single crisis, a moment of decision that can be taken if only the political will were strong enough. In this view, solidarity is needed right now in different places at different times, and better worlds can be prefigured in many and varied ways. This is a million miles away from an apocalyptic vision of the end of time. It is the painful, slow process of bearing witness and negotiating what is true and right among fallible, disagreeing humans.

Do we have to imagine the literal end of the world to seek constructive and emancipatory change? Is this the only thing that will create the political space to seek alternatives? Is the new condition of ‘climate anxiety’ a debilitating or motivating force? This is the gamble that is shaping a large part of environmental rhetoric at the moment. Apocalyptic talk may be rhetorical, playful, an exaggeration for effect: but once it’s out there, it’s out there.

But rather than seek to censor, ridicule or dismiss it, we should be calling out apocalyptic thinking, noticing the language used and motivations at work, engaging with it and critiquing it. We should look at the diverse places it comes from and where it might lead. In some hands, it becomes an engine for immense creativity and passion, as the artistic flourishing around Extinction Rebellion in London demonstrated. In others, it may be exploited as a way to force through new technologies and solutions that promise to avert catastrophe. In yet others, a vision of a burning world may create a need to escape, to fly to Mars, to retreat into a bunker, to collapse into despair, or to batten down the hatches against the imagined threat of immigration and harden military defences in preparation for wars over scarce resources.

It’s certain that for some, these visions of doom can induce paralysis. My hunch is that they can also serve to limit reflection or decision-making in profound and unforeseen ways. In other words, the apocalypse is a depoliticising force, even if it’s not meant to come across that way. While that can be useful for getting things done if people generally agree on what’s causing the problem, or the right course of action, it prevents discussion about some things that are validly uncertain: where the consequences of different choices (like geoengineering) are unknown; where models of environmental change or potential disasters are unclear; where there’s disagreement on the scope of the problem, and its causes (capitalism? consumption? elites?); where data is partial; where it’s unclear what to prioritise to get the best results. The threat of total destruction steamrolls over these questions. It treats them as academic quibbles, instead of what they are, central and vital questions to life and wellbeing. But asking questions doesn’t stop you doing stuff — you can resist, build, explore, invent, while reflecting and learning about what is happening and why.

What energises me personally is not the threat of destruction but the possibility of creativity and emancipation. All around the world people are seeking better ways to relate to their fellow creatures and listen to each other. With this in mind, it’s good to remember that the apocalypse isn’t the only powerful story available. There are other models and visions that have motivated powerful emancipatory change.

If a Biblical reference is needed, why not the stories of the early church, who shared everything they had in common, in the face of persecution and threats of execution from Rome? Or the parable of the mustard seed, which grows from the tiniest speck into a sheltering home? Why not the Song of the Three Children, sung by three friends in the midst of a fiery furnace? Used in Catholic liturgy and in daily Anglican prayer, the Benedicite invites all of creation to worship, from winds, fire, frosts, clouds, mountains and wells, to whales, birds, beasts and people. In this vision, the parts of nature are viewed not as hostile or chaotic forces but as fellow worshippers.

It’s a theme picked up again by St Francis of Assisi in the Canticle of the Creatures (‘Brother Sun’… ‘Sister Moon’… ‘Brothers wind and air, and fair and stormy’), referenced by the Pope in his encyclical on the ecological themes. These strands have been much more dominant in Christian ecological thinking than visions of the end of time.

Of course, there are many things left out of these poetic and evocative texts too. They imply a cosmic world view that is not shared by all. They have to be taken alongside more practical discussions of how solidarity and justice can be built, and learning can take place. But their strength is in imagining all of creation being embraced into a community: they refuse to see nature and people as a mere instrument or resource, but rather something to have a relationship with.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Beyond Christian texts and traditions, there are thousands of creation myths, theologies and secular stories that offer more ways to rethink our relationships with other in the context of a natural world that is alive and responsive. Recent activism around Extinction Rebellion has aimed to use ritual to connect bodies and emotions in more reflective, open ways. This draws on longer-established traditions across the world, which see places and living beings as sacred, or assign intentions and agency to them: regular rituals bind and reinforce these ideas in a communal setting.

Religious traditions are not just bunches of stories: they are practices too, often geared to dealing with life’s uncertainties, joys and tragedies. The kind of knowledge that is bound up in religious tradition can’t be separated from the practices that go with it. This is why stories and imagery plucked from out of context tend to look strange or awkward, even if they can sometimes jolt us out of familiar ways of seeing the world.

By bringing these ideas into conversation with each other, we might find common threads, but also recognise that there are many diverse ways of responding emotionally and spiritually to the biggest of problems. And going beyond storytelling, we can also recognise the limitations of stories, the cracks in familiar narratives, the old assumptions that can be usefully challenged with new insights or knowledge.

What is the apocalypse for, then? Are epic narratives of civilizational collapse needed to provoke new visions of wellbeing? What are the costs of telling these stories? Where is hope located in them? Rather than condemn or dismiss dramatic metaphors of impending disaster, it’s perhaps more useful to try to understand where they come from, why they resonate so strongly, what their effects will be, and what alternatives are available to us.

This article was first published on Medium.