by Austin Ho
Contemporary fiction is saturated with dystopian depictions of the apocalypse, carrying images of cataclysmic destruction to society and the world at large. This saturation, Bendle (2005) argues, is reflective of the 20th-century repositioning from a ‘Promethean to an Augustinian view of human nature and history’ (p. 2), an adverse change in the faith in human morality which culminates in the development of narratives with dystopian visions that crowd out utopian apocalypses common in the eschatological tradition. Examples across different media and genres include films like Don’t Look Up (2021), books such as Station Eleven (2014) and manga series like Attack on Titan (2009); these narratives do not shy away from their pessimistic overtones, portraying what Bendle (2005) called ‘a conviction of human sinfulness and weakness’ (p. 2) through their negative characterisations of humanity.
Not all contemporary works are purely dystopian, and some carry a hopeful message or promise of renewal in their endings, even if glossed over. For instance, 2012 (2009) ends on a hopeful note with the prospective reorganisation of society after the events of the apocalypse, though it is brief and greatly overshadowed by the plot which paints a picture of what could be if humanity cooperates for collective survival.
Nonetheless, popular apocalyptic imagination, as presented in the media today, remains largely representative of our understanding of the end times—namely one of dystopian pessimism. War (2011) argues that this is due to the secular nature of the ‘modern’ apocalypse, which borrows ideas from its religious origins but departs from them in its focus on ‘disaster as the primary interest’ (p. 3). War (2011) asserts:
Modern man’s secular imagination pictures an apocalypse of despair, in which the end of the world will be final, without the promise of any renewal. No new heaven or earth will follow. A sense of helplessness and despair envisioned about the future of man are final and total.(p. 2)
However, if we were to trace the origins of apocalypses to religion and mythology where these narratives were conceived, we would observe similar widespread destruction but not the same finality that many contemporary texts proclaim; indeed, we would instead find the ‘Promethean’ view Bendle (2005) speaks of, encoded in the language of apocalyptic narratives which symbolise an end to an undesirable state of affairs, and the beginning of a new era. Unlike in most contemporary fiction, the hope of renewal in religious and mythological narratives, specifically as portrayed in the Book of Revelation and Völuspá, is—as I will explore in this article—not only present but central to their message. I will argue that they chiefly intended to convey this message of hope not in opposition to, but through apocalyptic destruction, by highlighting the latter’s critical role in expunging the decaying world of its undesirable elements in order to pave the way for a new and better one. In so doing, I hope to resolve the conflict that lies at the heart of this apparent contradiction between the insistence on the necessity of destruction in traditional apocalyptic texts, and the auguries of hope they espouse.
Origins of the Apocalypse
Contrary to its popular definition of ‘widespread destruction’ (War, 2011, p. 3), apocalypse, from Ancient Greek apokálupsis (‘revelation’), originally referred to the unveiling of divine secrets by a supernatural entity (Carey, 2012). In the Book of Revelation, an angel reveals a series of prophetic visions detailing the fate of humanity and the world to the author, John of Patmos. Likewise, in the Norse text Völuspá (‘Prophecy of the Seeress’), a prophetess addresses the god Odin, providing an account of the end of the world in the climactic battle of Ragnarök, and thereafter, its rebirth. Through their portentous narratives, we can surmise that the apocalypses in both texts serve a purpose of conveying a message encoded with a truth about the destiny of the world at the end of time, and beyond.
Destruction in the Book of Revelation and Völuspá
The apocalypses in both texts attest to a battle between dominant forces in the world, and present to varying degrees the triumph of good over evil, with widespread destruction as a part of the eschatological timeline. The Holy Bible, New International Version (1973/2011) details the War in Heaven, in which the heavenly host, led by the archangel Michael, confronts the devil Satan and his angels in battle. The war ends in defeat for Satan, who ‘was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him’ (Rev 12:7–9).
In a similar vein, the Völuspá attests to the apocalyptic event of Ragnarök, literally the ‘Final Destiny of the Gods’ (Simek & Hall, 1996, p. 259), relayed through the seeress’ visions in which the gods face their enemies in a final war to end all wars. Though the gods emerge victorious, many of the mightiest among them are slain in battle, with Odin swallowed by the wolf Fenrir and Thor succumbing to the venom of the world serpent Jörmungandr (Bellows, 1936). By depicting the fallibility of the gods, the scale of the destruction of Ragnarök is effectively communicated.
This theme of death and conflict is accentuated in both texts by accounts of the destruction of the natural world on a celestial scale, invoking imagery strikingly similar to each other. Revelation states:
There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.[italics added for emphasis] (6:12–14)
This natural imagery is repeated in chapter eight of Revelation with the angels sounding the trumpets, where ‘hail and fire mixed with blood’ is ‘hurled down on the earth’, setting ‘a third of the earth’, ‘a third of the trees’, ‘and all the green grass’ ablaze (Rev 8:7); ‘a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky’ (Rev 8:10) and ‘a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark’ (Rev 8:12). Stanza 57 of the Völuspá echoes the extent of destruction thus:
The sun turns black, | earth sinks in the sea,[italics added for emphasis] (Bellows, 1936, p. 24)
The hot stars down | from heaven are whirled;
Fierce grows the steam | and the life-feeding flame,
Till fire leaps high | about heaven itself.
In totality, the evocation of natural elements and disasters both familiar—floods, earthquakes and fire—and fantastical—a blackened sun and falling stars—emphasises the hyperbolic scale of damage wrought by the apocalypses. In particular, the extinguishing of natural light and thus the spread of darkness might be representative of the despair and hopelessness the events inspire in those who are prophesied to experience them. This is precisely the kind of vivid imagery that Bendle (2005) asserts has moulded the ‘contemporary apocalyptic imagination’ (p. 2).
Hope and Renewal in Revelation and Völuspá
Nonetheless, the theme of hope and renewal is evident in both texts. In Revelation, the Christian faithful are spared from the tribulations of the apocalypse, with harm prevented from befalling those with the seal of God on their foreheads. It is emphasised through repetition and absolute terms that ‘he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence’ and ‘never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them.’ (Rev 7:15–16), contrasting the protection of the believers with the suffering and death faced by the non-believers. Ultimately, ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Rev 7:17), summarising the promise of happiness by God to the faithful as a symbol of hope in the apocalypse. The destruction of the world makes way for the establishment of the heavenly kingdom, called ‘new Jerusalem’ in Revelation 21. This ‘new heaven and new earth’ represents a far purer form of the world than the old one, with no more ‘death, mourning, crying or pain’; ‘for the old order of things has passed away’ (Rev 21:4). Rev 21:4 repeats the message that ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes’, cementing its central position as a promise of hope in the kingdom to come after the apocalypse.
In the Völuspá, the message of hope and renewal is conveyed through the evocation of natural imagery once again as a new world rises from the ashes of the old. Stanza 59 describes the emergence of the verdant earth from the waves it had hitherto been submerged under, while stanzas 60–62 depict the return of the younger gods who meet to reminisce on the affairs of the old world whilst standing amidst fecund fields that ‘bear unripened fruit’ (Bellows, 1936, pp. 24–25). Here, images of natural beauty are used to depict a sense of peace and tranquility, juxtaposed with that used to describe the chaotic events of Ragnarök. Twice is gold used as an image of prosperity in the new age: first in ‘golden tables’ (Bellows, 1936, p. 25) and then in describing Gimlé, the paradisiacal abode of the righteous rulers ‘roofed with gold’ (Bellows, 1936, p. 26). Stanza 64 ends with ‘And happiness ever | there shall they have’ (Bellows, 1936, p. 26), bringing the prognostication of the seeress to a close with a hopeful promise of happiness in the new world—a ‘gleaming new aeon that abets humanity’s life where the balance in the world would be restored’ (Mehanović, 2021, p. 55).
The Necessity of Destruction in the Hopeful Promise of Renewal
From both texts, it may be observed that apocalyptic destruction is instrumental—and not merely collateral—in ridding the old world of its undesirable elements, be it evil in the form of Satan and his followers, or the enemies of the gods. In Revelation, the destruction specifically serves as a form of collective ablution for the blight that sin has tainted humanity with, in order to purify the world for the Elect to inherit the Kingdom of God. In his seminal work The Pursuit of the Millenium, Norman Cohn (1970) asserts that the moral degeneration of humanity in the events leading up to Revelation necessitated apocalyptic destruction, for humanity ‘must indeed be subjected to a sifting judgment so severe that it will effect a clean break with the guilty past’ (p. 20). Philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1998, as cited in Falkenburg, 2014) concurs, arguing that John of Patmos ‘calls up the pagan cosmos only in order to finish it off, to bring about its hallucinatory destruction’, and that ‘the Christian apocalypse must destroy the world in order to found the celestial kingdom‘ (p. 48).
Likewise, in juxtaposing the destruction of Ragnarök with the clean slate it brings to the world, the Völuspá is a myth Walker (2013/2018) would describe as a “magnificent evocation of cosmic destruction leading to world renewal” (p. 4). Berger (1994) observes:
“To destroy in order to save” can be paraphrased, “To rupture in order to continue.” Apocalypse posits, on one hand, absolute discontinuity. But on the other, the radical clearing away occurs for the benefit of values already known. Two contradictory statements: Everything is destroyed, and, some things continue.(p. 13)
Apocalyptic events and their attendant destruction in such narratives are thus not ends in themselves as the contemporary imagination might suggest, but rather, means to an end—means to make renewal possible, and in so doing, convey a message of hope to an imperfect world—a promise of a better one. As the seeress Wenche says in Ragnarok (2020), ‘Many believe that Ragnarok was the end. They are wrong. It is where it all starts.’
In contrast to contemporary fiction, which is fixated on the expression of the finality of apocalyptic destruction, an examination of the apocalyptic narratives in the Book of Revelation and Völuspá show that destruction in religion and mythology is not antithetical to hope, but a vehicle for it—by serving as a purification of society, bringing an end to an imperfect world and heralding the beginning of a new and better one.
Bellows, H. A. (1936). The Poetic Edda. Princeton University Press. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm
Bendle, M. F. (2005). The apocalyptic imagination and popular culture. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 11(1), 1–1. https://doi.org/10.3138/jrpc.11.1.001
Berger, J. A. (1994). After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse [Doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global. https://www.proquest.com/docview/304128290
Carey, G. (2012). Ultimate Things: An Introduction to Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature. Chalice Press.
Cohn, N. (1970). The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/norman-cohn-the-pursuit-of-the-millennium
Falkenburg, N. A. (2014). Apocaylpse [sic] then, apocalypse now, and a future without fear: A neo-paganistic reimagining of our climate change narrative [Bachelor’s thesis, Whitman College]. Arminda Collections. https://arminda.whitman.edu/theses/193
Holy Bible, New International Version. (2011). Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation%201&version=NIV (Original work published 1973)
Mehanović, M. (2021). Fate according to the Prose Edda narration of Ragnarok: A theological contemplation, elaboration and insight to the Norse pagan concept of fate [Master’s thesis, University of Gävle]. DiVA Portal. https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1583637/FULLTEXT01.pdf
Simek, R., & Hall, A. (1996). Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer.
Walker, S. F. (2018). Apocalypse, transformation, and scapegoating: Moving myth into the twenty-first century. In Burnett, L., Bahun, S., & Main, R. (Eds.), Myth, Literature, and the Unconscious (pp. 3–16). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429477454 (Original work published 2013)
War, T. (2011). Apocalypse then and now. The Criterion: An International Journal in English. 2(1), 8–15. http://www.the-criterion.com/V2/n1/Tasleem.pdf