Apocalypse Now

November 9, 2020
Giovanni Bazzana is Professor of New Testament at HDS.
Giovanni Bazzana is Professor of New Testament at HDS.

Bazzana uncovers the truth about the book of Revelation in early Christianity—and today

Coronavirus. Unemployment. Social unrest. People often describe the times we’re living in as “apocalyptic,” but Giovanni Bazzana wouldn’t necessarily agree.

“Today ‘apocalypse’ is associated exclusively with catastrophe,” he says. “That comes from its association with the end of the world and the book of Revelation in the Bible, which has a lot of destructive imagery and motifs. But as the use of these motifs has become more common, the word has lost a lot of its original meaning.”

Bazzana would know. As Harvard Divinity School’s Professor of New Testament, he teaches about early Christian apocalyptic literature and connects its themes to contemporary culture. In so doing, he sheds light on the narratives that frame everything from global climate change, to the politics of white evangelical Christians, to Afro-futurism. 

A Radical Idea

As Bazzana teaches undergraduate students in his course “Stories from the End of the World” for the Harvard College Program in General Education, the word “apocalypse” comes from the ancient Greek “apokálupsis,” which means, literally, “revelation” or “uncovering.” He says that the emphasis on catastrophe so closely associated with the term obscures more interesting—and more subversive—meanings.

“The word is associated with the end of the world but, just 
as important, the end of a particular world system,” he says. “It’s not just a kind of accident that happens and creates pain or destruction. It brings to an end a world order. It’s a very radical idea.”

Written under the pressure of persecution, the Apocalypse of John—better known as the book of Revelation—envisioned an end to a very specific world order: the Roman Empire. For this reason, it was inconsistently included among the canonical books of the New Testament in late antiquity. 

“It was a dangerous book for the Constantinian project,” Bazzana says, referring to the fourth-century Roman emperor. “Constantine says, ‘I’m the emperor. I’ve become a Christian. Now the empire itself will become Christian.’ But Revelation sees the empire as inherently evil. There’s no way it can be saved. The book describes its complete destruction.”

Moreover, there was more than one ‘apocalypse’ for Rome to worry about. Bazzana says that John’s apocalypse is best known because it was eventually admitted to the New Testament canon, but there was an entire genre of apocalyptic literature during Christianity’s early years.

“There was basically an ‘apocalypse’ for every major figure in early Christianity,” Bazzana explains. “So, one for Peter. There’s one for Paul. One for the Virgin Mary, which is very important, very popular in antiquity and in the Middle Ages everywhere, mostly because it contains a very detailed description of the otherworld, which went on to influence famously Dante and others.”

Smoke stacks

The Enemy Is Us

The history of apocalyptic literature, the circumstances under which the books were written—which were included in the canon, which were rejected, and why—is important to understand, Bazzana says, because it still shapes the way the stories are deployed in politics and society. In the United States, for instance, apocalypticism is associated with conservative Christianity and its support for traditional norms and centers of power. In most of the rest of the world, though, the book of Revelation’s repudiation of the Roman Empire is associated with the struggle of marginalized people against oppression.

“Apocalypticism is very much something that progressives do [outside of the U.S.],” Bazzana says. “For instance, in Catholicism it’s tied into the influence of liberation theology in South America and Latin America. It also shapes the way that people in Europe see contemporary theological issues. As a student in Italy, my own interest in apocalyptic themes and literature was fueled by this commitment to liberation and progressive political ideals.”

Moreover, apocalyptic themes still permeate contemporary art and culture. Today, though, the antichrist precipitating the end of the world order isn’t “a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns”; it’s someone who looks very much like us. 

“You get movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which I always watch with the students in my class,” Bazzana says. “The enemy looks like the same people we know and trust and respect, which is why it’s so hard to defeat. It’s unrecognizable.”

In recent years, the enemy has gotten even harder to identify. The popular Left Behind series of novels present an updated version of the book of Revelation in which the antichrist is often someone from the United Nations or the European Union. In this context, the enemy is someone who exhibits behaviors associated with Christ, but for nefarious purposes.

“So, there’s war or famine and you’ve got to give aid to countries in distress,” Bazzana says. “These are all good things, but this is exactly where the antichrist works—through ostensibly Christian ideals and projects, but for evil ends: idolatry, total control, etc.”

In this context, apocalypticism reflects conservative Christians’ preoccupation with individual freedom and their deep suspicion of the state. It may also help explain their unwavering support for Donald Trump, whose character flaws seem familiar—the devil you know. But Bazzana says that apocalyptic themes and narratives crop up on the left as well, particularly around the coronavirus pandemic and global warming. And if the enemy for the right is someone who looks like us—or even like Christ—the enemy on the left actually is us.

“You find a lot of writing where the pandemic is a kind of natural response of nature against the human attack on Earth,” Bazzana explains. “People think about humankind as an infection that brings about the destruction of earth as an ecosystem. Nature takes the place of God as a superhuman force that intervenes—that destroys the infection before the infection destroys creation. People even talk about ‘the climate change apocalypse.’” 

Yet even amid the associations with catastrophe and doom, apocalypticism can also offer hope for the future. Bazzana points to the theology of postmillennial Christians who believe that Christ’s “thousand-year reign” is now. The task of human beings is to come together and work to create heaven on earth by redressing social inequities and repairing the damage to nature.

“Postmillennials believe that, even though things look bleak, Christ works through humans to establish the kingdom,” Bazzana says. “It’s up to the faithful to work toward that goal. We can’t wait for external divine intervention. Peace, justice, and creation care are committed into the action and responsibility of humans.”

by Paul Massari