The end of the world, or surviving in its ruins, is a popular trope in science fiction. Later this year, Tom Cruise discovers dark secrets on an abandoned earth devastated by an alien war in Oblivion. Will Smith crash-lands on an earth long forsaken by humans in After Earth. The World’s End sees Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunite for what will be an undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek take on the apocalypse.
Apocalyptic movies show our fear of death writ large,and our fascination with the ultimate fate of humanity as a whole. In our largely post-Christian culture, stories and science fiction have taken the place of religion as the framework to explore these questions.
You can track the changing dominant fears of our culture by the stories we tell: nuclear war, global pandemic, catastrophic climate change – they’ve all had big screen outings. Meanwhile, other more fantastic dooms operate on a more metaphorical level, such as alien invasions (in the Cold War era, often thinly-veiled Communists, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or the ever-ubiquitous zombies.
Zombies are a shambling über-metaphor, able to stand in for a whole variety of fears and anxieties. They show us reduced to zombies by consumerism, as in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead with its shopping mall full of zombies. They can represent our post-Darwinian fear that we are nothing but a pile of dead meat walking, or middle-class fears of the working classes, or a whole variety of other anxieties.
In many recent post-apocalyptic stories, the exact cause of the apocalypse is left vague. It doesn’t really matter what caused it, compared to the task of living with it. Yet, you don’t need to turn to science fiction to find dystopias. They are all around us, not just far away inNorth KoreaorIran, but in our own towns and cities, hidden in plain sight as so many people struggle through in lives of quiet desperation.
The Bible tells us that we are living in the shadow of a far worse catastrophe than a nuclear war or global pandemic. The disaster took place inEden, when Adam and Eve turned away from God, and fell into selfishness and sin. However literally or symbolically you interpret Genesis, the end result is that by ourselves, we’re spiritually dead, and the world is messed up as a result. We all suffer from what Francis Spufford eloquently calls, the Human Propensity to F*** Things Up (HPtFtU). Or to put it another way, we are all zombies, but just don’t realise it.
Many people believe that the Bible predicts an ultimate cosmic smack-down straight out of a big-budget Hollywood flick: the super-villainous Anti-Christ ushers in Armageddon, the final battle between God and the devil. Jesus will return to airlift us off to a spiritual existence in heaven while the physical universe burns and collapses. (In this vein, the popular American end-times series Left Behind is due for a Hollywood reboot, starring none other than Nicolas Cage – now there’s a real horror movie in the making!)
But in the original Greek, the word ‘Apocalypse’ doesn’t mean the end of the world, but simply ‘to be revealed, unveiled’. The name of the last book of the Bible, Revelation, is a direct translation of ‘apocalypse’. The word in fact points to the revealing of Jesus Christ as Lord.
Paul tells us in Romans 8 that: “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.” Contrary to the predictions of science that the universe will one day fade away into an eternal heat-death, entropy will not have the final word. The end of Revelation looks forward not to the destruction of the world, but its renewal.
Ultimately, we don’t go to heaven, but heaven comes down to earth; spiritual and physical reality in perfect union and harmony. (On this, I thoroughly recommend Tom Wright’s book Surprised by Hope, plus Mike Reeve’s talk on Armageddon or Apocalypse).
God is healing the universe, and he chooses to do so through us. Creation will be liberated “into the glorious freedom of the children of God”(Romans 8). God’s purpose in making us alive isn’t to prepare us for some great escape to a spiritual elsewhere, but to bring life and healing to the world through living with Christ as Lord.
So enjoy those movies about the end of the world, but remember the real meaning of apocalypse – once we were zombies, but now we’re called to be part of God’s big plan to reveal healing and restoration.