What goes through your mind when you see some angry preacher with a bullhorn shouting that the end is near? Do you ignore him/her? The idea that God will soon dramatically intervene in the affairs of the world and draw history to a close … well, it’s an extreme idea, isn’t it? It is enough to make us wonder if the people who think this way might have some sort of mental health issues. However, one cannot proceed very far into the New Testament without realizing that it is steeped in apocalyptic expectations. Jesus in the Gospels is thoroughly apocalyptic (especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Jesus’ main theme was often the “Kingdom of God,” which has come to mean a just society arrived at through gradual development, at least within “liberal” Christianity. But originally this expression was apocalyptic. When Jesus taught his followers to pray “Your Kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10 | Luke 11:2) this referred to the apocalyptic inbreaking of God into the historical realm – the end of history as we know it.
While the New Testament is a collection of apocalyptic writings, not every text is apocalyptic in the same way, or to the same degree. Paul’s apocalyptic expectation is different from John’s, and John’s is different from the other Gospels’.
So, what are we to do with this thread of thought in the New Testament? There are a few interpretive possibilities. We can try to replicate this pattern of thought; we can try to translate this pattern of thought; we can ignore this pattern of thought; or, we can fuse this pattern of thought.
To replicate a pattern of thought is to duplicate it verbatim, and then apply it to the modern world as is. This is not a sophisticated type of interpretation and carries problems with it. It presumes that we are not called to think as much as to receive. We are to take what has been handed us and embrace it. It also means that we must ignore the fact that we in the 21st century have different vantage points from those held by our ancient counterparts. Different vantage points bring new meanings and new engagements. Because we inhabit vastly different contexts from our ancient counterparts, what we think and feel will inevitably have different shades of meanings from what was meant two thousand years ago. For example, saying that Jesus will return very soon (Mark 9:1 | Matthew 16:28 | Luke 9:27) will mean and feel something different if it is uttered 40-60 years after Jesus’ death than if uttered 2000 years after his death. “Soon” cannot mean the same thing for us as it did for the initial audience of these Gospels. This means that replication as an interpretive ideal is not possible. We are not the same as our ancient counterparts, and so it is not viable to try and think like they did.
Drawing by Canis Canon
Translation as an interpretive mode is built metaphorically upon language transition, which takes an utterance in one language and renders it into another. The problem is that each language has its own inner logic and grammar. Each word has its own range of potential meaning according to the logic of the language, and according to the other words that co-exist within the language. While one might be able to approximate meaning, something is inevitably lost. Poetry often suffers the most. One might be able to render something of the meaning, but the art and beauty will inevitably have to be sacrificed.
There is an old saying in Italian, “traduttore, traditore.” It is suitable to note that a fully appropriate translation of this is not possible. That is, the pun which is built upon the simply exchange of an “u” and double “t” with “i,” cannot be replicated in English because no two words have the similar spellings and meanings. Hence, the pun is lost in translation. A wooden translation is “translator, traitor.” That is, translation is a betrayal. (For those interested in biblical studies, this is a good reason to learn Hebrew and Greek!)
Translation, as a metaphor for interpretation, likewise involves betrayal! If we are going to make the text speak to our situation, this will usually happen because we have silenced the ancient situation. Ideally, we would articulate what the text originally meant, and then “translate” that into what it means now. The problem is that it is not always possible to take an ancient “meaning” and then create a corresponding modern counterpart. This presumes that meaning is stable over time.
In order to make an interpretive translation, a similarity between the past and the present is isolated. This similarity becomes a basis upon which to make implications from the text for the present. The problem is that the past and the present are never the same, and the similarities that are isolated only suffice because of what is left out. In other words, similarities between past and present are only compelling because differences have been ignored. Traduttore, traditore! While this model of interpretation is better than replication, it too is flawed!
Can we “translate” the apocalypse into the modern world? Perhaps we can understand global warming apocalyptically? The similarity between global warming and apocalyptic sensibilities is that for both an “end” of some sort is imagined. While such a juxtaposition might have some heuristic value, in the final analysis, it doesn’t justice to the past. It only works as a translation because the differences between the present and past have been ignored. The apocalypse, according to ancient thinking, is inevitable and driven by God. Global warming is not driven by God, or even by nature – it is a humanly driven phenomenon. Furthermore, it is not inevitable, even though our inaction is increasingly making it more and more unavoidable. In the apocalyptic sensibilities of the New Testament the end comes when God steps on the stage of world history, bringing history to an end. This is missing when we speak about global warming.
Certainly, it is always possible to deal with the issue of interpreting the past by side-stepping the whole question. This is what I assume most of our culture does. How does it understand the ancient past? It doesn’t. It ignores it and get on with its day. Why worry about a bunch of ancient doomsday predictions when we can watch TV? Perhaps better, why worry about the problems of the past when there are so many problems residing right here in the present? This approach misses out on some of the resources that the past has to offer.
Fusion is helpful approach to interpretation that I am adopting from Gadamer. He wrote, “Understanding is always the fusion of those horizons [the horizons of the past and present] supposedly existing by themselves. … for [the] old and new are always combining into something of living value…”
The goal is not simply bringing the past into the present, or of the present retreating to the past, but rather of both maintaining their own integrity. Out of this they combine and fuse into something new.
Where do new ideas come from? If we accept that the world is governed by cause and effect, then I think we can safely say that new ideas come from new engagements with the past. Nothing comes from nothing, and when applied to ideas, this means that new ideas come from old ideas. This is one value to studying ancient texts, as through them we are exposed to old ideas. One value of these old ideas is that they can help generate new ideas. How does this relate to the apocalypse?
One thing to note is that the New Testament apocalyptic texts all come from the past. The ideas about the future that they generate are really ideas from the past, reflecting concerns of the past. They tell us more about the past than the future. They employ the thought forms and ideas available to them to try and understand a great mystery – the future. Yet now, these texts about the future are locked in the past. They don’t help us get to the future, it turns out. In entering into their world of thought, we enter into an ancient house, filled with surprises and oddities – but also filled with nothing of the “future.”
Getting to the future is no easy thing. To think about the future is almost impossible. This is a strange thing to say, considering we all believe we think of the future regularly. Typically, however, when we think about the future, what we are really thinking about is the fears or hopes we have accumulated from the past. These old thoughts and images from the past are disguised as the future. The future is utterly other than these old relics; it is chaos – it is formless, and thoughtless. It defies conceptualization. To look into it is to look into the eyes of a child not yet born – a child that has the power to destroy civilizations. Terrifying and promising without content and yet holding the whole of everything that ever will be. The future, it turns out, has an apocalyptic shape.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t say anything meaningful about the future. We see patterns in daily life and assume that these patterns will continue. This is because we presume the future will be very much like the past.
And these patterns do continue – until they don’t. The predictable is always reliable … until it isn’t. Personal and collective apocalypses are always lying in wait. What is an apocalypse but the interruption of the normal and the typical? The normal will continue unimpeded … until it doesn’t. Be prepared – everything could change in the blink of an eye!
How can we live into this sort of perspective? It requires that we adopt an openness to the unknown that is coming upon us. Apocalyptic thought can teach us a radical openness towards the future; a radical openness to the future which, strangely enough, only ever happens in the present.
Bultmann wrote: [The Grace of God] “is always ahead of us, always a future possibility. As grace, the transcendence of God is always God’s futurity, God’s constant being ahead of us, God’s always being where we would like to be. God is always there already as the gracious God for those who are open to the future, but as judge for those who shut their hearts against the future.”
This is apocalypse, but it is not the apocalypse of the New Testament. It is deeply engaged with the New Testament but is something new.
Caputo, explaining Derrida, writes, the “Messianic has to do with the absolute structure of the promise, … a future always to come.” Woe to us if it ever did come, that would be the end of everything! If the Messiah ever were to actually show up in historical time “the effect would be to shut down the very structure of time and history, to close off the structure of hope, desire, expectation, promise, … of the future.” The Messiah “must always be to come”. The future must always remain the future, or the game is over.
If God exists, then God is always one room removed from us. (Maybe two?) He is always close but not right here. As much as we may feel the presence of the divine, the knowledge of the absence of the divine is always also close at hand. God is very close and very absent, at the same time. What is Apocalypse? Apocalypse is when this ambiguity is removed, and God steps out of the future, and out of the room next to ours, and into the room we inhabit, and into the time we inhabit. If God comes into this room, it changes everything about this room, so much so that we can say that it is the end of that room. If the ambiguity is removed, then life as we know it is finished.
In spatial and temporal terms, then, God is “away” and “ahead.” The apocalypse is when “away” becomes “here,” and “ahead” becomes “now.” It is the end of time and space – the collapse of everything… and is it awaiting just down the road for us.
The end is near – always near – so you might as well repent while time and space remains…
 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, (London; New York: Continuum, 2003) 306.
 Rudolf Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting, (New York: Meridian Books, 1956) 195.
 Jacques Derrida, & John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation With Jacques Derrida, (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997) 161-164.