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The Myth of the Secular Apocalypse

An excerpt from 'How to Survive the Apocalypse.'
The Myth of the Secular Apocalypse
Image: Tithi Luadthong / Shutterstock

John Stuart Mill first coined the word dystopia in a speech to Parliament in the 1880s. But it would only come to be a unique literary genre in the 20th century—a largely pessimistic version of the future, as if Dante had written the Inferno and stopped.

Works like George Orwell’s 1984, H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange all express a profound sense of discomfort with narratives of hope—whether religious, Enlightenment, or otherwise secular. There’s good evidence that this was reflected in the films of the mid–20th century—particularly intriguing (though usually overstated) is the presence of alien-invasion narratives as Cold War anxieties increased.

And that brings us to today’s apocalyptic stories. They rarely refer to God, or gods, or shared beliefs—except as a way to tell a better story, without the weighty religious meaning they once held.

The promise of traditional tales of apocalypse, writes Elizabeth Rosen in Apocalyptic Transformation, “is unequivocal: God has a plan, the disruption is part of it, and in the end all will be made right. Thus is suffering made meaningful and hope restored to those who are traumatized or bewildered by historic events.” Apocalypse isn’t unmitigated catastrophe—not exactly. You could even call it optimistic.

In apocalypse, the suffering and pain we encounter in this life finally gains meaning. How many of us, in fact, yearn for apocalypse—for Revelation—to make the deep pain and difficulties of our lives meaningful and finished?

Traditional Christian liturgy even regularly calls forth apocalypse: Come, Lord Jesus, it ...

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