I have lived through at least 5 Apocalypses that I can remember off the top of my head: Y2K, when technology supposedly couldn’t handle the switch to a new millennium; May 21, 2011, when Harold Camping argued the Rapture would take place; October 21, 2011, Camping’s “corrected” prediction once he realized he was wrong before; December 21, 2012, the date the Mayans “predicted” the world would end; and September 27-28, 2015, when the last Blood Moon of the tetrad appeared. Countless other apocalypse dates have been suggested. Needless to say, none have yet to come true, yet many people still make predictions about the end of the world in which they feel confident. These theories gain popularity and manage to convince high amounts of people of their validity. The Mayan Apocalypse (December 21, 2012) gained enough popularity that Hollywood made an entire movie about it.
The fact of the matter is that humanity as a whole has always been completely obsessed with knowing when the end of the world will happen. That’s why it has been the subject of different novels and films for a long time. Different religions have different ideas, and none seems more popular than the ideas set forth in the book of Revelation within the Christian Bible, as Frank Kermode notes throughout the chapter “The End” in his novel The Sense of an Ending. The events that are described within Revelation have been dissected constantly since it was written. Early Christians used Jewish numerology to argue that Emperor Nero was the Beast foretold by the number 666. Many of the apocalypse date arguments stem from analyzing the mentions of fire, earthquakes, red moons, and bloody rivers to pinpoint exactly when the world will end. Every time the predicted date rolls around and everyone is still here on Earth, the prediction gets revised to a later date (like Harold Camping’s supposed Rapture).
Kermode examines some “undercover” work sociology students did to infiltrate and observe a sect that believed in a certain date for the apocalypse. He explains that when the date came and passed, for most of the members of the sect, “disconfirmation was quickly followed by the invention of new endfictions and new calculations. Festinger had previously noted that such sects characteristically sought to restore the pattern of prophecy rather than to abandon it, and on this erects a general doctrine, very interesting in the present connection, of what he calls consonance” (17). It did not seem to matter to the members that they were wrong, but merely that they must revise their beliefs to fit a new theory. In a convoluted way, this does remind me of how science is supposed to work: you compose a hypothesis and test it. If it turns out you were wrong, you don’t try to make the results fit your first hypothesis. You accept your error and formulate a new hypothesis based on what you now know. Of course, I’m not arguing that the members of this sect were true scientists. I do agree with Kermode when he calls these apocalyptic sects naïve because they do not actually have any evidence to back up their claims, but you have to give them credit for being able to change so easily and being fairly optimistic about the whole situation, given that they are “hoping” in a way for the end of the world.
It is this “hope” that is extremely interesting to me. Why is it that some people are disappointed when the date of the supposed apocalypse comes, but the apocalypse doesn’t? Surely that would be a good thing? I would say I couldn’t understand that feeling, but honestly, I can. In an incredibly weird and morbid way, I was a tiny bit disappointed when December 21, 2012 came around, and nothing interesting happened. You can’t tell me I was the only one. Sometimes, secretly, we hope things happen because they are interesting. I liken it to watching a train wreck. You don’t want to watch, you know it’s an awful thing to happen, but you can’t tear your eyes away. That morbid curiosity rears its ugly head. Kermode also gives another reason for these feelings: the idea of peripeteia. Kermode defines peripeteia as “the equivalent, in narrative, of irony in rhetoric” (18). It’s a reversal of circumstances that occurs within narrative. It’s the reason that, when we read a novel, we want to be surprised. While it can be fun to guess what will happen next, especially in a mystery novel, aren’t we little bit disappointed that, when we are right, it feels too predictable? It’s a let down, for sure. Kermode argues, “the interest of having our expectations falsified is obviously related to our wish to reach the discovery or recognition by an unexpected and instructive route. It has nothing whatever to do with any reluctance on our part to get there at all” (18). We want to be surprised. We don’t want life to be predictable. Just like we want a novel to surprise us and upset our expectations, we want life to do the same. This is part of why we often feel morbidly interested in things like the apocalypse. We don’t actually truly believe it will happen, or at least that we can predict it, so, in the back of our minds, we hope for things like the apocalypse only to uproot our predictions and expectations.
But why do we focus so much on the end of the world in particular? What is it about the apocalypse that makes it so interesting? First, we must look at why we think we can pinpoint a specific date. After all, years, dates, time on the clock are all manmade constructions. Kermode contends that “we are celebrating our desire for human kinds of order; when we find rational objections to them we indulge our powers of rational censorship in such matters” (11). We create these artificial divisions to pretend that we have control over time. In doing so, “the century and other fundamentally arbitrary chronological divisions–we might simply call them saecula–are made to bear the weight of our anxieties and hopes” (Kermode 11). If we can control, or at least pretend to control, time, we gain power over our own lives. We want the apocalypse to fit in to our division of time because it then validates it and in turn validates us. Also, if we can predict when the apocalypse is happening, we can pretend some control over our own fates. We can prepare, we can feel sure that we at least have so much time left. We don’t feel uncertain. It is that uncertainty that bothers us the most. Even when our predictions are wrong, “we refuse to be dejected by disconfirmed predictions,” thereby “asserting a permanent need to live by the pattern rather than the fact, as indeed, we must” (Kermode 11). We care more for the pattern than whether or not the pattern follows through. That false assurance soothes us into complacency and confidence, which is not always a negative thing.
While we as humans are still obsessed with the idea of the apocalypse, recently that obsession has transformed into something new. In the past several years, post-apocalyptic literature has become increasingly popular. Books, movies, and even video games such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, The Walking Dead, Left 4 Dead, and Adventure Time all focus on what happens after the apocalyptic event, be it a zombie outbreak, nuclear war, or other life changing event. Perhaps this signals a change in the human mindset. We aren’t satisfied with just thinking about the end. Instead, we look beyond the end, looking forward to what happens next, to what is a new beginning, in a way that reminds me of my own Catholic Christian faith. Kermode writes, “it has been said that Christianity of all the great religions is the most anxious, is the one which has laid the most emphasis on the terror of death” (27). Perhaps so, but only because we look forward to what comes after death. We look forward to Christ’s coming resurrection and living eternally with God. As Albus Dumbledore notes in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure” (297).