Apocalyptic thinking has dominated the 21st century. But it’s not a new phenomenon. Concerns and fears of the end times have shaped much of human history, whether one looks at the Norse prophecy of Ragnarök, a Mayan calendar or manuscript culture around 1000 A.D. Also, apocalyptic thinking is not limited to a certain ethnicity, geographic religion or faith. In this article, I will investigate apocalypticism in the 21st century and determine the extent of eschatology in our political lives. There will also be an analysis of relevant films and novels.
“It happened that a fire broke out backstage in a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning. They shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid the general applause from all the wits who believe that it is a joke.”Søren Kierkegaard
Whilst its tempting to believe that apocalypticism is for ‘religious’ or ‘fanatical’ people, we must not limit our analysis of eschatology to this misconception. Rather, eschatology affects and shapes everyone, regardless of any claims to secularism or rationality. This is alluded to in Tom Holland’s historical work Millennium, which illuminates a time of warfare, religious strife, geopolitics, justice, conversion, beauty and kingship.
Some examples of apocalyptic thinking are sympathetic but others aren’t.
What Is Eschatology?
A core concept of eschatology is the ‘doctrine of last things.’ Various religions and theologies have differing perspectives. It is, in simplistic terms, the end of the world. Eschatology isn’t the same as an empire crumbling or transforming. Eschatology is the end times where humanity perishes in the natural world. That said, one doesn’t need to believe the ‘end times are nigh’ to engage with apocalyptic thinking. The fear of extinction, even if one acknowledges its irrationality, can motivate our politics and daily lives. While there are various eschatology’s, my focus is on Christian theology, or ‘Revelation’ – the final book in the New Testament, featuring startling imagery of deathly horses, warlords, rivers of blood, conquering angels and the fertile seeds of a New Jerusalem. There are many ways to interpret Revelations. It’s also not the only commentary on eschatology. As this article discusses, the apocalypse is a potent motif in literature, art, philosophy and music but especially in political thought.
Examples of 21st Century Eschatology
+ Climate Change Movements
The core thesis of climate change is that the earth’s temperatures are getting hotter. This is difficult to disagree with. Yet there is significant controversy relating to nuclear energy and ‘climate policies.’ Vague terms such as ‘green’ and ‘climate-friendly’ add to this fractured reality. As does the emotion present in many environmental debates, where accusations of ‘climate change denial’ are thrown without care or accuracy.
Concerns of climate change vary. In Australia, the ‘Teal’ Independents won seats in the latest federal election by appealing to professional middle-aged woman about the need for ‘climate action.’ The Member of Parliament where I live is a Teal – Kylea Tink, who claimed the seat of North Sydney over Liberal Party member Trent Zimmerman. I recall the shiny, aesthetically pleasant marketing of the Teals, where supporters wore pink shirts and seemed like a friendly bunch. This was made sadder by the shallowness and corporatism of the Teals.
A surely sharp contrast to the theatrical and emotional Extinction Rebellion: who, although I disliked their tactics of taping themselves to roads and disrupting daily life for London citizens, there was no denying their passion and apocalyptic thinking. In many ways, Extinction Rebellion took the Teals, Al Gore and environmentalist politicians to their logical, and most extreme, conclusion.
No one has embodied apocalyptic thinking and global warming as much as Greta Thunberg. Her stunts of skipping school and using media gigs to promote alarmist messages of collapse and decline resonated with many. Some conservative commentators dismissed Thunberg as a child and not knowing anything. Whether this is true or not matters less in our era of ‘climate anxiety’ where students believe the world is ending.
However, climate change has also produced nuanced voices such as Michael Shellenberger, declared ‘Hero of the Environment’ by Time Magazine in 2008 and author of ‘Apocalypse Never.’ The conversations about climate change remain ongoing.
+ The Islamic State
The most vile and cruel form of apocalypticism in this century comes from the Islamic State- with offshoots such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A militant Islamist group, following a Salafi Jihadist branch of Sunni Islam, the Islamic State has captured Mosul, slaughtered Christians, apostate Muslims, Jews and Yezidis, destroyed religious and cultural monuments and has a reputation for posting executions online. Yet there’s an eschatological bend to the Islamic State – the followers are concerned with the end times, believing a war against ‘Rome’ will be fought in Dariq (as reported by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic) where victory unleashes the apocalypse.
The Islamic State see the apocalypse everywhere and have embraced it to a frightening degree. As pointed out by The Atlantic, it’s unclear who ‘Rome’ is. It can’t be the Vatican due to a lack of troops. The Italian government doesn’t make sense either. Rather, I believe ‘Rome’ is the embodiment of the West: from the Roman Empire, to Christendom and her eventual schisms, to Americanisation. Or perhaps, Rome means any infidel army. The eternal city and Dariq are not the only places present in Islamic eschatology – so is Istanbul, who is marked for ISIS sacking.
The Islamic State has provoked many sympathisers among the West, Middle East, Africa and Asia. I recommend following The National Interest’s reporting on the Islamic State. Early in this article, I mentioned Tom Holland, the historian behind Millennium. Yet his research and filmmaking about the Islamic State deserves mention and praise, too.
In the lead-up to the third millennium, Japan underwent numerous terrorist attacks from a doomsday cult named ‘Aleph’ which translates into ‘Supreme Truth.’ This resulted in the tragic Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995. Thirteen members, including leader Shoko Asahara, have since been executed. Yet the doctrine of Aleph took inspiration from Western esotericism, Buddhism, Christianity, Chinese astrology and Taoism. One of Asahara’s rationales for his terrorism was taking on the sins of others. To him, the apocalypse was necessary for ‘human relief.’ Interestingly, he saw World War III occurring. Asahara engaged in conspiracy, whether about the British Royal Family, the Jews or Freemasons.
The story does not end here, however. The Russian government has since labelled Aum Shinrikyo as a terrorist organisation. As has Canada, Kazakhstan and the European Union. The execution of Shoko Asahara and his followers may have increased his messianic status among followers. As argued by the Tokyo Weekender, there are 2,000+ cults operating in Japan with a significant portion of the population having links to them. It remains unclear the extent of apocalyptic thinking in Japan.
However, I do not want to conflate the horrifying actions of Aleph with the Japanese people, who have suffered from cults. Rather, I’m presenting Japan as an example of apocalyptic thinking in our era.
+ World War III
Concerns of World War III are not limited to the last few years or the 21st century. After the surrender of the Axis Powers and the emerging Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States of America, there has been a ripping concern over a third world war. One famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein is: “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Current technological developments, whether from Silicon Valley or in a nuclear program launched by North Korea, make this prophecy more urgent and alarming. The current geopolitical situation does not help. There are many tensions (and conflicts) dominating the globe: The Russian-Ukrainian war, the South China sea, fractured alliances in the Middle East, ethnic violence in Africa and the Indian subcontinent as well as terrorism and landmines in the Caucasus. I’m also alarmed by growing developments between Turkey and Greece.
Even continents such as Oceania (where I live) are still in a perilous situation. The European Union has cracks in it as the vision of member states does not always align. There’s no denying the transformative power a world war results in. World War III rightly remains a catastrophic nightmare for all civilisations. It may not end the world per say – but it will annihilate many institutions, systems, groups and individuals.
+ Doomsday Clock
The Doomsday Clock, maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences since 1947, represents the global threats to mankind – whether nuclear war or climate change. As from 2020, the clock is 100 seconds to midnight. Ever since its inception, the Doomsday Clock has come to represent the end-times and emerging apocalypse, almost always from human error.
The Doomsday Clock is not without critics. The scientist Steven Pinker picks up on the pessimism emphasized by the Clock and instead, argues for rationality and objectiveness. A common conservative critique is the equivalence of climate change with nuclear war. Personally, this is a fair point – climate change is a slow burn, decades in the process whereas nuclear weapons can wipe out large parts of the world within a day. Opinions aside, there is no denying the visual power of the Doomsday Clock. The graphic novel, Watchmen, incorporates it as a symbol. Smashing Pumpkin’s also has a song called ‘Doomsday Clock.’ Interestingly, Doctor Who has an episode where clocks are moved to three minutes to midnight, thus causing panic – and encouraging humanity to accept help from manipulative and alien monks.
+ “The End of History”
The apocalypse represents the annihilation of our bodies and the earth. But perhaps there’s a more subtle type of end times – where our minds stop thinking and we are content with the systems already in place. Until, as Plato taunts, tyranny conquers. History mirrors this: the Roman Republic transformed into Imperial Rome under the vigilant eye of Octavian.
However, this theory goes both ways. If democracy always ends with tyranny, then perhaps, tyranny flourishes into democracy. This captures the optimism of the early post-Soviet era among the victorious Anglosphere.
Published in 1992, The End of History and The Last Man is a book of political philosophy by Francis Fukuyama. Here, the scholar makes a provocative claim: the rise of Western liberal democracy and the collapse of the Soviet Union have marked the end point of mankind’s ‘ideological evolution.’ Fukuyama, in the tradition of Enlightenment thinkers such as Edward Gibbons, treats history through the lenses of evolution: the cancers of ethnic and total warfare will continue to fade as the seeds of Western liberal democracy flourish.
Of course, we are in 2022. There’s war in Eurasia and we do not trust our fellow countrymen. Economic trends of sluggish wage growth and the housing crisis are claustrophobic. My country will undergo a brutal recession. Ever the oracle, Dante Alighieri proclaims in Inferno: ‘Abandon all hope you who enter here.’ Yet the war-torn among us have already annihilated their optimism.
Fukuyama’s thesis is treated with skeptism and dismissal. Yet he is not necessarily an eschatologist. The End of History is not meant for literal interpretation. The promises of universal brotherhood, globalised freedom and democracy have not come true and never will. We are not living in the end times. But our hopes and dreams are.
The Power Of The End Times
As we can observe from these movements, eschatology is not limited to a certain faith, geographic area, language or culture. There’s something universal and maybe timeless about the ‘end times.’ However, it’s tempting to conclude that at this moment, in comparison to other eras, the concerns of the apocalypse are more vivid than ever. I’m also curious about how unstable societies breed extreme eschatology. After all, many climate activists are empowered by economic inequality and a decline of opportunity. Regardless, the apocalypse makes for a stirring symbol in film and television. I recall season 5 of Supernatural – where the forces of Lucifer challenge Sam and Dean like never before.
The arrival of ‘Death’ remains one of my favourite television moments. Eschatology is a common motif in fantasy as writers can truly use their imagination to portray the horrors of the apocalypse.
There’s also a genre of fiction called ‘post-apocalyptic’ which analyses societies and individuals after a catastrophe. Examples include The Walking Dead and Stephen King’s The Stand. I’m also fond of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The apocalypse is also featured in music, from R.E.M’s ‘It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ to Marilyn Manson’s album ‘Antichrist Superstar.’
Regardless of the merits present in apocalyptic thinking – there is no denying humanity’s obsession with it.