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The Apocalypse as an ‘Unveiling’: What Religion Teaches Us About the End Times

An undated handout image, “Death on the Pale Horse”, by Benjamin West, at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Handout via The New York Times)

An undated handout image, “Death on the Pale Horse”, by Benjamin West, at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Handout via The New York Times)

For people of many faiths, and even none at all, the coronavirus outbreak can feel lately like the end of the world is near.

Shamain Webster, who lives in the suburbs outside of Dallas, has seen the signs of a coming apocalypse for a while now, just as the Bible foretold.

Kingdom would rise against kingdom, Jesus taught his disciples in the Book of Luke. Webster sees widespread political division in this country. There will be fearful events and great signs from heaven, he said. She sees biblical values slipping away. A government not acting in the people’s best interest. And now this — a pandemic.

But Webster, 42 and an evangelical Christian, is unafraid. She has been listening online to one of her favorite preachers, who has called the coronavirus pandemic a “divine reset.”

“These kinds of moments really get you to reevaluate everything,” she said. As everyone goes through a period of isolation, she added, God is using it for good, “to teach us and train us on how to live life better.”

For people of many faiths, and even none at all, it can feel lately as if the end of the world is near. Not only is there a plague, but hundreds of billions of locusts are swarming East Africa. Wildfires have ravaged Australia, killing an untold number of animals. A recent earthquake in Utah even shook the Salt Lake Temple to the top of its iconic spire, causing the golden trumpet to fall from the angel Moroni’s right hand.

But the story of apocalypse is an old one. In ancient religious traditions beyond Christianity — including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism — it is a common narrative that arises in moments of social and political crisis, as people try to process shocking events.

The original word in Greek — apokalypsis — means an unveiling, a revelation.

“It’s not just about the end of the world,” said Jacqueline Hidalgo, chair of religion at Williams College in Massachusetts. “It helps us see something that is hidden before.”

As a pandemic thrusts the United States and much of the world into a new economic and social order, those who study and practice religion see deeper truths being unveiled.

The crisis is revealing health care inequalities, class divisions and the fact that the most important workers in American society are among the least paid, said Jorge Juan Rodríguez V, a doctoral candidate in the history of religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York. “What is being revealed are the fault lines in the system that always existed,” he said. “We are just noticing it now because the system is stressed.”

About 44% of likely voters in the United States see the coronavirus pandemic and economic meltdown as either a wake-up call to faith, a sign of God’s coming judgment or both, according to a poll commissioned by the Joshua Fund, an evangelical group run by Joel C. Rosenberg, who writes about the end of the world, and conducted last week by McLaughlin & Associates, pollsters for President Donald Trump and other Republicans.

David Jeremiah, a pastor who has been one of Trump’s informal evangelical advisers, asked in a sermon recently if the coronavirus was biblical prophecy and called the pandemic “the most apocalyptic thing that has ever happened to us.”

Among Christians, one of the most well-known apocalyptic narratives is the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, which tells the story of the defeat of an evil beast, a final divine judgment and the coming of a New Jerusalem.

While many biblical scholars read the book as a story about the destruction of corrupt political systems, many evangelical Christians believe it describes the rapture — Jesus’ return to save believers from a period of tribulation.

Joshua Johnson, 46, in Keller, Texas, spends time reading the story and interpreting its symbols, written nearly 2,000 years ago, in modern terms. He looks for the rise of the “mark of the beast,” a demonic mark all people will be forced to bear.

He wonders if Jesus will return by 2028, 10 years after Trump moved the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which he saw as a prophetic sign. “I tell my children, I think we are that generation,” said Johnson, who attends Gateway Church, a prominent evangelical church.

In the United States, where Christianity is by far the dominant religion, about 40% of American adults believe that Jesus is definitely or probably going to return to Earth by 2050, including 1 in 5 religiously unaffiliated people, according to the Pew Research Center.

Some evangelical Christians are finding hope in a divine promise that God has saved them for eternity, a feeling of security amid so much uncertainty. “For me personally it is just a reminder that God is sovereign,” said Mark Lovvorn, 65, who attends First Baptist Dallas and is chairman of Providence Bank of Texas.

For centuries, religious traditions have not only offered a way for humans to understand apocalyptic moments. Over time, these hours of crisis have also shaped religion itself.

Some of the earliest apocalyptic speculation is found in Jewish scriptures, in stories like the Book of Daniel, as the Hellenistic age gave way to the Romans around the second and first centuries BC and Jewish communities experienced violent persecution. Some Jews speculated again about the end of time when the Roman army destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70.

As the early Christians turned to an external savior and as the Romans continued to crush rebellions, Jewish leaders realized they needed to survive in the world as they knew it, explained David Kraemer, head librarian and professor of Talmud and rabbinics at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

The rabbis developed a system in which Jews could live anywhere, under any government and live meaningful lives connected to neighbors and to God.

“That was the Judaism that enabled Jews to live through persecution, plagues, medieval centuries and on through early modernity,” Kraemer said.

Every year the celebration of Passover, which begins next week and recounts 10 plagues from the Book of Exodus, is a reminder of God’s redemption. The Passover Seder “says we have been in difficult circumstances before and we will get beyond them,” he said.

In the Islamic tradition, the Quran tells stories of plagues and of a final earthquake that will tear the Earth apart, as well as stories of finding God in the created world.

In mainstream Islamic thought there is a distinction between the end of the world and the concept of apocalypse, said Amir Hussain, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Apocalypse also includes what happens when one’s eyes are opened.

“Look at the creation, look at the oceans,” Hussain said, reflecting on a favorite passage in the Quran about God’s mercy. “How much better is it to have that realization in this lifetime?”

In Buddhism, time is cyclical, not linear, making apocalypse both an end and a beginning. “Apocalypse happens, and then a new order starts — a new social order, new moral order,” said Vesna Wallace, professor of Buddhism at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The story repeats itself.”

Apocalyptic stories in Buddhist scriptures share similar themes, often including an unjust ruler, social inequality, plagues and fruits that do not ripen, she explained, referring to texts from the fifth and 11th centuries A.D.

In Buddhist traditions, apocalypse comes as a result of collective karma — everyone’s actions toward one another and the world — which means its outcome can change, even in the present circumstance. “Now people are kinder to each other; they are spending more time with families,” Wallace said. “It’s like a warning to change the course of actions, to bring back compassion, empathy, develop social equality.”

Modern, secular American life is filled with its own apocalyptic visions. Movies and television shows depict civilization on the brink of extinction. “The Walking Dead” explores life amid the zombie apocalypse. “The Hunger Games” presents a dystopian future after conflict and ecological disasters have destroyed much of the world.

A stark, binary structure — a clear good and evil, a clear before and after — appeals when society is fractured, said Hidalgo, the religion professor from Williams.

“Apocalypse is a flexible script,” she said. “A sense of shared external evil can really bring folks together.”

It is also a reminder that across several traditions, the memory of past crises can offer hope — that humans have survived such moments before and that the truths being revealed can become a call to action.

“The country’s idols are being exposed,” said Ekemini Uwan, a public theologian and co-host of the podcast “Truth’s Table.” “People are advocating that we throw our grandparents to the slaughter, sacrifice them on the altar of capitalism,” she added, referring to Republican leaders who have suggested that older Americans might be willing to sacrifice themselves to save jobs.

For too long America has been on “spiritual life support,” trusting its own invincibility, she said.

“Is it the end of the world? Maybe it is, maybe it is isn’t,” she said. “But we need to be ready. We need to learn to number our days because we really do not know when our last breath will be.”

Elizabeth Dias c.2020 The New York Times Company

first published:April 02, 2020, 13:37 IST