Enjoy Your Apocalypse

Matthew Abbott/The New York Times

In my last post, I discussed the meaning of God’s judgment in a time of crisis. For some, the current crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic—is just one harbinger of the myriad, interconnected environmental crises that we describe with the benign-sounding umbrella term “climate change.” This series of crises will likely come to define the human experience in the twenty-first century. Before the coronavirus, we were already bracing ourselves: the coverage of the massive Australian wildfires this winter, like coverage of the endless succession of California wildfires in recent years, all had a tone of apocalyptic doom. “This is it,” the journalists seemed to be saying. “It’s here. This is the future now.” Floods, hurricanes, fires, climate-induced wars, food and water shortages, pestilence. It all seems to be underway.

In a recent article in First Things (not a journal I usually recommend), Peter J. Leithart writes that the coronavirus may be an apocalypse—we needn’t wait for a single, cataclysmic event that transforms civilization into a Mad Max-style wasteland. There have been many apocalypses in history, and there will be many in the future. Leithart continues:

Speculation about the end of civilization misses a key point anyway. Rod Dreher has noted in several recent essays that “apocalypse” means “unveiling.” When God comes near, he strips away the fig leaves, our defenses and delusions, and brings hidden things to light. In the United States and Europe, the pandemic may reveal many things: The fragility of our sense of invincible security; the frivolity of our entertainments; the risks of globalization and the risks of insurmountable national boundaries; the frayed condition of our social relations. Our confidence in science may be shaken—whether because the experts’ modeling drastically overshoots or because science can’t save us. Coronavirus may put a nail in the coffin of libertarianism, convincing everyone that only massive collective action can protect us in times of mortal danger. It may, on the other hand, be a blow to statism, if the massive collective action backfires. 

The main thing exposed by any apocalypse is the state of the heart. God tested Israel with manna to “know what was on your hearts” (Deut. 6), and his word cuts through to expose the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb. 4:12–13). We will come through this, and that reprieve will be as critical a test as the crisis has been.

Leithart cites Rod Dreher, who is more pessimistic than Leithart about the immediate future: “We should all prepare ourselves, psychologically and otherwise, for the coming chaos. We are going to be poor. We should do this as soberly as possible, but we should do this. Economic collapse is the kind of thing that can bring down a political system.” Dreher compares this moment to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and warned that crises like these could lead to the rise of an American Putin. I would say we may be already halfway there.

I appreciate Leithart and Dreher’s reminder that the Greek word apocalypse means unveiling (we frequently translate it as revelation). I believe that what God unveils during this pandemic needs to be exposed: our society’s disregard for one another, our disregard for the elderly, the poor, the lonely, the suffering, and the stranger. Our sinful love of money, our addiction to entertainment, our gross appetites that rule our actions. I, for one, welcome this unveiling. Our entire culture is naked before the world, and everyone can see our junk. Our anxiety at this time should be accompanied by a deep feeling of shame.

Dreher writes, “This current apocalypse reveals to us how fragile our way of life is — and always was. From a Christian point of view, this is unquestionably a call to repentance and conversion.” If I know anything about Christian teaching, it is that repentance leads to joy and freedom. I do not make light of the pain and death that the coronavirus is causing. But in all of this there’s a possibility for renewal. We might look back at this period as a blessing, something that brought us peace, hope, and joy.

The fear of failure is often more terrible than the experience of failure. During this time, I’m telling myself that the fear of collapse may be worse than the collapse itself. We will get through this, and we can say that we survived an apocalypse. But let’s not allow this apocalypse to go to waste. We must watch carefully what God is unveiling.

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