Originally published in The Millennium Myth,
Reproduced by permission of the author.
Like a swarm of tired old bees, the elderly Christian buzz-words have not been buzzing too much recently. “Redemption” is what happens when you buy something back from the pawnbrokers’ shop. “Atonement” is what a politician does when he (or she) is caught in some misdemeanor and has to resign from the government. “Justification” means lining up a page of typescript with no straggly edges. “Reconciliation” is what accountants do with columns of figures that don’t quite add up. And so on.
But mention the
word “apocalypse”, and suddenly there’s so much buzzing you’d think you were
inside the hive trying to get at the honey. That’s
It is no accident that the whole imagined world of apocalypse has increasingly become a fascination, almost an obsession, as the twentieth century has wound towards its close. There is a strong sense of crisis, of old things tumbling and new worlds waiting in the wings. We don’t know where we’re going, but it looks as though we’re going there faster and faster.
This sense of an urgent race to we’re-not-sure-where has been heightened by several factors. The huge technological changes in our world, particularly the explosion of information technology (you can now design your own virtual apocalypse, and that’s just the start); the great political changes, particularly the collapse of the Berlin Wall and all that has followed from it; and the ecological changes of which we are now increasingly aware – all have contributed. Global warming didn’t cause the end of the Cold War; that would have been taking a metaphor too literally, something which as we shall see intelligent readers of apocalyptic shouldn’t do. But they just happen to have coincided, and together with lots of other factors they produce a sense of urgency, transformation, new possibilities and perhaps  new dangers. All the stuff of which modern apocalyptic fantasies are made.
Of course, the end of the Cold War has meant that one particular “apocalyptic” scenario has receded – the possibility that two superpowers might press the wrong buttons and blow each other, and probably the rest of us as well, into smithereens. But that hasn’t stopped the apocalypse-mongers from inventing ever more dramatic possibilities. And don’t think we’ve seen the end of it yet. As we build up to 2000, and no doubt beyond, the race will be on to see who can devise the most lavish, thrilling, dangerous and dramatic end-of-the-world story yet. Novelists and movie-makers are queueing up to outdo one another in horror-fantasy futurology.
like most good dramatic ones, have all sorts of people keen to act them out. In
our world, where many people find it difficult to distinguish fiction from
reality (witness the gifts sent in to radio stations when a couple in a soap
opera have a new baby), the Hollywood apocalypses, and the novels that mirror
them, generate a real world where more and more people truly believe that with
the turn of the calendar from 1999 to 2000 something cataclysmic is about to
happen in, or perhaps to, our world. Nostradamus (a French astrologer in the
sixteenth century) predicted that  in 1999 a “great king of
terror” would come “from the sky”. (Of course, people have made wild
predictions about 1799, 1899, and for all I know several other similar dates
too.) A group from
Where does all this apocalyptic speculation come from? Why is it so powerful? Is there any good reason to link it to the year 2000? Are there any solid and lasting lessons to be learnt from it?
The irrelevance of 2000
The idea of apocalypse gets its
punch, its buzz, from its biblical origins. There is still in our culture a
latent memory – dim in some circles, sharper in others – that the Bible
contains some bits and pieces which look like the special-effects script for
one of those
Whatever else needs to be said, let us be clear about one thing. The year 2000 in general, and the transition from 31 December 1999 to 1 January 2000, has nothing special about it to link it to these fascinating but deeply obscure biblical prophecies. We may review the reasons.
1 As we saw in the previous chapter, the scheme we now follow was invented in the sixth century AD, got it wrong by four years or thereabouts. In any case, it envisaged 25 March, not 1 January, as New Year’s Day. 1 January 2000 is a man-made date that just happens to look impressive within our culture.
2 As, again, we saw before, for the New Testament the most significant moment to do with Jesus was not his birth, but his death and resurrection. This took place in or around AD 30, at the Jewish festival of Passover, so its 2000th anniversary would be roughly 2030.
3 There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that the period from Jesus’ coming, or his death and resurrection, to the end of the world (always supposing such an event to be envisaged by the early church), would be two thousand years. If the numerical systems of the book of Revelation were to be taken literally, and if the Millennium spoken of in Revelation 20 referred to the time of Jesus’ present heavenly rule before some great cataclysmic event, then presumably that event would have taken place in or around AD 1030, the thousandth anniversary of his resurrection.
4 Millennial speculations have flourished in many times and places without any connection to a change of actual century or actual Millennium. What happens, it seems, is that the popular imagination, cherishing millennial speculations for quite other reasons, projects an arbitrary man-made time-sequence on to cosmic reality, supposing that there is something mystical about a great change in the calendar. You might as well suppose that your car suddenly becomes a different sort of thing when its milometer changes from 99,999 to 100,000.
There is, then, no reason whatever in the Bible, the teaching of Jesus, or Christian theology, to suppose that the year 2000 will see any kind of great change in the world. The language of millennial speculation comes from the Bible, but nothing in the Bible points to the year 2000, or its first day according to our calendar, as having any particular significance. If, of course, you believe that God can do whatever God wants, there is no reason why God should not do something special at that moment. But there is nothing that should persuade even the most devout Christian that this is likely.
But, we may ask, what sort of events should we be expecting, anyway?
To answer this question we must look at the language the Bible uses at this point. What is “apocalyptic”?
It is a serious misunderstanding of the relevant ways of speaking and writing to suppose that when the Bible speaks of the sun and the moon being darkened and the stars falling from heaven, and of similar “cosmic” events, it intends the language to be taken literally. Four hundred years ago, the early English Reformers (people like William Tyndale, the great Bible translator) had to write careful essays explaining to muddled Christians that the Bible often uses metaphors; when it says that Jesus is the door of the sheep, for instance, it doesn’t mean he is made of wood, or swings to and fro on hinges. They did this in order to free people from the tyranny of one particular understanding of the words Jesus used at the Last Supper (“This is my body . . . this is my blood”). I want to make a similar point to free people from the tyranny of a literal understanding of “apocalyptic”. The word “apocalyptic”, and others like it, have become notoriously slippery in the last few decades. There is no such thing as “correct” usage at this point. I shall simply tell you how I think these words can be used helpfully and accurately.
In common with
many other scholars, I use the word  “apocalyptic” itself to
refer first and foremost to a way of writing, what you might call a literary
convention. Some writers chose consciously to evoke the cosmic or
theological meaning of events in the space-time world by means of a
sometimes complex system of metaphors. “The stars will not give their light”,
wrote Isaiah, “the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed
its light” (Isaiah 13.10). What was going on?
Take another obvious example, this time from the New Testament. “God disarmed the rulers and authorities”, wrote Paul, “and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross” (Colossians 2.15). What was going on? Jesus had been crucified as the climax of the strange saving plan of God. How are you going to invest that event with its full significance? Impossible, but one step towards it is to borrow the language of military triumph – which was of course all the  more ironic, since in the literal space-time world what had actually happened was that the principalities and powers seemed for all the world to be celebrating a triumph over Jesus. The dramatic language highlights what the writer thought was the deepest meaning of puzzling events.
Take a third
example. “Fallen, fallen is
examples show well enough the main point to grasp. “Apocalyptic” of this sort
is a type of  language-game. It regularly involves vivid
metaphors which enable the writer to say, and hopefully the reader to
understand (Mark 13.14, in the middle of a passage most would see as
“apocalyptic”, urged “let the reader understand”, though most still don’t), the
significance, within God’s dimension of reality, of events that happen within
our dimension, within the world of space, time and matter. To take Isaiah’s
stars, sun and moon literally – to suppose, that is, that he thought they
really would be darkened and/or falling out of the sky – is as silly a mistake
as it would be to take Paul’s metaphor literally, and to suggest that the
gospels have got it wrong, and that actually Jesus was not crucified, but won a
military victory over Pilate, Herod and the Chief Priests. And, whichever city
is referred to as “
That last example shows as well, of course, just what traps there are for the unwary in all this. Yesterday’s literal statement may become today’s metaphor; tomorrow things may reverse again. Nobody takes all the Bible literally, and nobody takes it all metaphorically, whatever they may say; we are none of us as wooden as our slogans suggest. In order to interpret any passage, particularly any passage of apocalyptic, the way of wisdom is to go through it one step at a time, deciding what  is literal and what is metaphorical on the way. When Daniel says “I saw four beasts come up out of the sea” (Daniel 7.2), the “beasts” and the “sea” are metaphorical (the “beasts” are human empires, and the “sea” is the source of evil), but “four” is literal. When he says that “the little horn was making war on the holy ones and prevailed against them” (7.21), the “little horn” is metaphorical (referring to an actual human ruler), but the “war” is literal. And so on. This, of course, requires caution in serious Bible study, something that is not always much in evidence.
But all this, so far, is simply a matter of learning how to read texts from cultures other than our own; of recognising other people’s metaphors for what they are. How does this get muddled up with the wild apocalyptic fantasies that we see sprouting up all around us at the approach of the year 2000?
Apocalypse and apocalypticism
The fantasies and speculations of
which I have spoken belong, not to “apocalyptic” proper, but to what we may
call “apocalypticism”. This is a way of looking at the world, and a way of
constructing or maintaining communities, which stir up and keep at boiling
point certain types of end-of-the-world speculations. It is speculations 
of this sort that can, if unchecked, cause tragic disasters like that near Waco
in 1993, when 79 members of the Branch Davidian cult died in a spectacular fire
after a 51-day stand-off with the federal authorities. Some of the groups
dislike technical terms in general, I find it helpful to use the word
“apocalypticism” to denote the worldview in which certain people come to
believe that their group is set apart from the rest of humanity, that it is
righteous and all others are sinners, and, more particularly, that an event
will soon occur which will sort things out once and for all. The sun and the
moon will be darkened, literally not metaphorically; the Lord will descend from
heaven and snatch the saints up in the air, literally not metaphorically; the
Mount of Olives will be split in two, and rivers of fresh water will flow down
Some readers of
this book may be acquainted at first hand with such groups in the contemporary
world. I am not; though I recently came across a surprising passage in one of
the best books I have read for a long time, William Dalrymple’s spectacular From
the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (London:
HarperCollins, 1997), a travel diary of a pilgrimage through the monasteries of
the Orthodox Middle East. I quote it here not least to show how beliefs the
Western world has come to associate with one type of Christian group (usually
extreme fundamentalism) can easily reappear, granted certain conditions, in
very different ones. Dalrymple is visiting the Mar Saba monastery, in the
Judaean wilderness of the Israeli-occupied
‘Beautiful?’ said Fr. Theophanes,
rustling his robes in horror. ‘Beautiful? See down there at the bottom? The
river? Nowadays  it’s just the sewage from
‘Actually, I’m a Catholic.’
‘Then,’ said Theophanes, ‘unless you convert to Orthodoxy, you too will follow your Pope down that valley, through the scorching fire. We will watch you from this balcony,’ he added, ‘but of course it will then be too late to save you.’
I smiled, but Fr. Theophanes was in full swing and clearly in no mood for joking. ‘No one can truly know what that day will be like.’ He shook his head gravely. ‘But some of our Orthodox fathers have had visions. Fire – fire that will never end, terrible, terrible fire – will come from the throne of Christ. . . The saints – those who are to be saved, in other words the Orthodox Church – will fly up in the air to meet Christ. But sinners and all non-Orthodox will be separated from the Elect. The damned will be pushed and prodded by devils down through the fire, down from the Valley of Josephat, past here – in fact exactly the route those Israeli hikers took today – down, down to the Mouth of Hell.’
‘Is that nearby?’
said Theophanes, stroking his beard. ‘The Mouth of Hell will open up near the
‘That is in the Bible?’
‘Of course,’ said Theophanes. ‘Everything I am telling you is true.’
We smile, too, perhaps, but the point is this: the Bible contains a good deal which, under certain social and cultural conditions, can suddenly mean very different things from what you might have thought – and, we may be sure, from what its original writers supposed.
The problem is that the New Testament simply doesn’t support this literalistic use of apocalyptic language. For all we know, there may have been some Christians in the early church who really did believe that the space-time universe was about to come to a complete halt, to be utterly destroyed. Perhaps whoever wrote 2 Peter 3.10 (“the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed”) expected it to be taken literally, but the last word of that quotation strongly suggests otherwise. It was only later that various scribes altered the phrase to “will be burnt up”, which you still find in some Bibles.
The point being made was most likely that a great about-turn would take place within world history, through which the secrets of all hearts would be disclosed, and God would be all in all. More of this presently. I offer you as a summary of what I have been saying so far in this chapter a somewhat oversimplified suggestion, which would need a lot of further teasing out to be watertight, but which, within the limits of this book, may nevertheless point us in the right direction.
Apocalyptic language, using cosmic language to invest historical events with their full significance, draws together the heavenly world and the earthly world;  “apocalypticism” forces them apart. Apocalyptic language exploits the heaven/earth duality in order to draw attention to the heavenly significance of earthly events; apocalypticism exploits apocalyptic language to express a non-biblical dualism in which the heavenly world is good and the earthly bad. To explore this further, we need to understand more about these two deceptively common words, “heaven” and “earth”.
Heaven and earth
Here is a nettle which we must grasp if we are to understand the relevant issues that swirl around apocalyptic speculations, not least those surrounding the Millennium. When people hear talk about “heaven” and “earth”, in our culture they normally assume that these terms refer to places at a great distance from each other. Many people still think that “heaven” is “way beyond the blue”, a place up there in, or above, the sky. Even though most people know it isn’t like that, the picture is naggingly resistant to serious thought.
Talk of “heaven” and “earth”, though, comes to us mostly from the Bible; and in the Bible these are not two places, separated from each other by many miles, but two different dimensions of the total reality of the world. This is what I mean by a “duality”, as opposed to  “dualism”. Just as animals, and many plants, are irreducibly male and female, with the two being complementary, and both being good and necessary for the flourishing of the species, so “heaven” and “earth” are the two dimensions of created reality. These two God-given dimensions interlock and interact in a variety of ways, sometimes confusingly, often surprisingly. And it’s particularly important to notice that heaven and earth were both created good. It isn’t the case that the physical world is somehow shabby or second-rate, and the non-physical somehow morally superior. That is to move into dualism, setting the two worlds against each other. Indeed, in the biblical story evil infected both spheres: creatures in heaven as well as creatures on earth, we are told, rebelled against God. But in that same story all things, in both spheres, are reconciled through Jesus the Messiah, though only after the principalities and powers, the spiritual powers that attempted to usurp God’s place, had been defeated through Jesus’ crucifixion (Colossians 1.15-20; 2.14-15).
My point is this: the duality between heaven and earth is very different from the dualisms of sectarian religion. The mindset that tends towards apocalypticism normally thinks of the heavenly realm, or the spiritual realm, or simply the non-physical realm, as always good, and the  earthly, material, physical world as always bad. Hence the readiness to imagine the present physical world being blown apart in some great Armageddon, and the sublime confidence that “we” – whichever group that might be – will be rescued from the ruin in a “heavenly” salvation that has left earth far behind.
The question must be: how can we read apocalyptic language without collapsing into apocalypticism? How can we respond to the heavenly dimension of the world without lapsing into an anti-earth attitude? And, faced with the Millennium, how can we co-operate with what God intends to do in our world, producing earthly events with heavenly meanings? And how can we in our turn describe what God may be doing in our world, in such a way as to invest earthly events with their heavenly significance? How, in other words, can we do for our own day what the apocalyptic writers were trying to do for theirs?
Christian future hope
Before we can address that, however, a word is needed about future hope. Some, particularly those nurtured on lurid speculations about the future, may suppose that in questioning these interpretations of biblical texts I am denying future hope altogether. Nothing could be further  from the truth. I attack the caricature in order to allow the reality to re-emerge from the shadows.
The reality is one of hope, not optimism. For the last two or three centuries the Western world has been nurtured on a belief in Progress. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we have been taught to believe that the world is getting better and better. Industrial progress, technological innovation, and the many-sided wisdom of the Enlightenment, have produced and will produce a world in which old evils will be left behind. Try telling that to a Holocaust survivor, a Tutsi refugee, a Honduran peasant. Fortunately, their voices and others like them have now been heard, and, as we shall see in the next chapter, the arrogance of “modernist” optimism has been properly challenged by the movement known as “postmodernity”. But where does that leave hope?
Hope has to do, not with steady progress, but with a belief that the world is God’s world and that God has continuing plans for it. The signs of this hope within the world at large are not the evidences of an evolution from lower to higher forms of life, or from one ethical or political system to another, but the signs built in to the created order itself: music, the birth of a baby, the appearance of spring flowers, grass growing through concrete, the irrepressibility of human love. Some parts  of our world simply point beyond themselves, and say “Look! Despite all, there is hope.”
biblical story, there are several moments that give particular focus and
clarity to this hope. The Exodus of the Israelites from
But (and at
this point Christians and Jews would agree) the world has not yet become all
that the biblical hope would indicate. We do not yet see peace and justice
reigning hand in hand. The very first Christian writer known to us, the apostle
Paul, wrestled with this question and came up with a clear solution. The hope
arrives in two stages. Jesus’ resurrection was the prototype, the beginning and
the model for the new world that is yet to be. His coming out of the tomb into
a new life was the personal, close-up equivalent of the Israelites emerging
from their slavery in
But that future, when it arrives, will not mean the abandonment of the present world, but rather its fulfillment. The whole creation, says Paul, will be liberated from its present enslavement to the forces of decay and death. You don’t liberate something by destroying it. All the beauty, all the goodness, all the pulsating life of the present creation, is to be enhanced, lifted to a new level, in the world that is to be. There is no room here for the dualism that goes with so much apocalypticism. Rather there is a strong incentive to work, in the present, to anticipate the new world in every possible way. Those who are grasped by the vision of God’s new world unveiled in Jesus’ resurrection are already sharing in that newness, and are called to produce, in the present time, more and more signposts to point to this eventual and glorious future.
The central feature of the hope held out in the Bible is of course the personal presence of Jesus himself. Many Christians, not least those who tend towards apocalypticism, have reduced this feature of the hope to the belief  that one day Jesus will appear, flying downwards from the sky, perhaps riding on a cloud. This event, the “second coming”, is in fact the event for which many of the groups who see great significance in the year 2000 are getting ready, not least those going off to Jerusalem to witness it.
However, most of the biblical passages that are quoted in support of the idea of Jesus returning by flying downwards on a cloud are best seen as classic examples of apocalyptic language, rich biblical metaphor. They are not to be taken with wooden literalness. “The son of man coming on the clouds”, in Mark 13.26 and elsewhere, does not refer to Jesus’ return to earth, but to Jesus’ vindication, “coming” from earth to heaven, to be enthroned as Lord of the world. (For fuller details, see my Jesus and the Victory of God, SPCK/Fortress, 1996, chapters 8 and 11.) And the one occasion when Paul uses the language of descent and ascent (1 Thessalonians 4.16) is almost certainly to be taken in the same way, as a vivid metaphorical description of the wider reality he describes at more length in Romans and 1 Corinthians.
Does this mean abandoning belief in the “second coming”? Certainly not. It means taking seriously the whole biblical picture, instead of highlighting, and misinterpreting, one part of it. The problem has been, in  the last two centuries in particular, that certain texts have been read from within the worldview of dualistic apocalypticism, and have thus produced a less than fully biblical picture, with Jesus flying around like a spaceman and the physical world being destroyed. And if we really suppose – as, alas, many seem to – that this will be the meaning of the Millennium, we will miss the point entirely. Rather, the Bible points to God’s new world, where heaven and earth are fully integrated at last, and whose central feature is the personal, loving and healing presence of Jesus himself, the living embodiment of the one true God as well as the prototype of full, liberated humanity. When we talk about Jesus’ “coming”, the reality to which we point is his personal presence within God’s new creation.
The present challenge of future hope
What then is the challenge of God’s future for the present? How do we rightly interpret, and re-appropriate, the apocalyptic hope?
The proper way of interpreting the great biblical hope is to see the present work of healing and liberation, the accomplishment of salvation at every level, as the bridge between what happened in Jesus and what will happen at the end. Deeds that truly embody justice, mercy, hope  and freedom in the present are signposts pointing back to Jesus’ resurrection, the ground of hope, and on to God’s future, to the final presence of Jesus, the fulfillment of hope. The task, for those grasped by this vision, is so to act in the present that only apocalyptic language will do justice to the reality that is unfolding before us.
How, after all, can we begin to describe the full significance of what we are doing, when we plant a tree in a devastated landscape, dig a well in a desert, give hope and love to an abandoned child, or campaign for an end to war? Only poetry, art and music can begin to do justice to such things; the flat one-dimensional language of ordinary post-Enlightenment analysis into economic or political forces will remain earthbound. Like our biblical forebears, we need to rediscover the many dimensions available to us for describing what look like this-worldly events and investing them with their heavenly significance. We need to rediscover, for our own age, how to write today’s equivalent of truly apocalyptic language: language that will speak of earth and resonate with the music of heaven.
This challenge, and this new emerging set of possibilities, takes a particular form within Western culture at this very moment. One of the features of our present sense of fin de siècle, of great crisis and transition, is  that the dreams our culture cherished for two hundred years or more have let us down. The so-called “modern” world has been challenged in the name of something calling itself “postmodernity”. This great apocalyptic upheaval in our culture seems to be going hand in hand with the approach of the Millennium; a change in the calendar seems to symbolize a change in the culture. The two seem to feed off each other. To understand the real crisis of the Millennium, therefore, and to begin to respond to it appropriately, we must take a deep breath and plunge into the strange new world of postmodernity.