We live in the end times. The moon has turned red with blood, fires have consumed the mountains, terrible floods have washed away the iniquities of Babylon. This isn’t scripture. These are the major plot points of the coverage of California’s recent wild fires. Think, for instance, of the out of control Thomas Fire in the wildland-urban interface that is Ventura County. The blaze that began on December 4, 2017 was quickly spread by hot, dry Santa Ana winds. In the end, fires burned nearly 282,000 acres, destroyed over a thousand structures, and forced the evacuations of over 100,000 residents. As if the fires weren’t enough, they were followed by devastating floods that swept through the landscape now devoid of constraining brush, leaving fifteen dead and many more injured. Now, less than 8 months later, the Carr fire threatens Redding, along with seven other major blazes that threaten California communities.
All this destruction quickly raised our collective apocalyptic consciousness. One headline read, “Photos Capture Apocalyptic Aftermath of California Fires” while another described the destruction, “Like a World War I Battlefield.” Such ascriptions are not unique to California’s fires and floods. Weather forecasts, once a reliably quaint feature of the evening news, have become increasingly shrill. Following Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican officials described the devastation as “apocalyptic.” The onslaught of Hurricane Harvey in Texas prompted convicted felon and televangelist Jim Bakker to assert that the flood was “from God” and “a judgment on America.” Mind you, he also took the opportunity to promote his disaster-readiness product, “Time of Trouble – Banquet in a Bucket.” While Bakker may represent a radical fringe, a 2014 PRRI/AAR poll found that 49% of Americans said that these intensifying natural disasters are evidence that the United States is experiencing the end times described in the Bible (compare that to the 62% who said that such extreme weather was due to climate change). Beyond our immediate environs, Cape Town, South Africa faces a water shortage due to drought that will force city managers to turn off the municipal water supply. Officials call this impending future, “Day Zero.”
Not only in talk of weather, but in our popular imagination and narratives, fantasies (or nightmares) of the end have become commonplace. Science fiction’s long fascination with utopian and dystopian motifs are making their way more and more into the mainstream. In the smash hit The Walking Dead, the survivors of a zombie apocalypse openly wonder about the religious meaning of their plight. In the season 2 finale, Herschel muses: “Christ promised a resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something different in mind.” Stories of nature’s revenge, from Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Series to Jason VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, are now firmly established in the canon of speculative fiction, established in part because of their increasing plausibility.
From weather to pop culture, so also with our political and scientific discourses: when it comes to the environment, it seems, the end is nigh! We’ve entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene, in which human activity is the dominant force determining planetary dynamics. The Economists’ review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report was titled “Apocalyptish.” Environmental social movements, like 350.org and the peak oil movement, use the crossing of environmental thresholds, like the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere or global fuel supplies, as cudgels to motivate drastic action. Even the US military has taken climate change seriously. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel led the Pentagon in publishing a “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Road Map.” In it he argued, “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.” In the midst of these wars and rumors of wars, the report commends military readiness for these “threat multipliers.”
What are we to make of all this apocalyptic talk? Should we understand it as clickbait? Rhetorical flourish? Mere lexical fragment? While these apocalyptic visions do not share a distinct common tradition—they are not Jewish or Christian or secular in any clean way—they are all theological. Each of these wild and weird examples engage fundamental questions about what creation is, who humans are, how salvation is wrought in the world, and what we can say about God and God’s action. What would it mean to take this kind of talk as a sign of the times: as revealing, uncovering, and disclosing something basic about the cosmos? Could such talk be the beginnings of an eco-apocalyptic political theology? And could an eco-apocalyptic political theology be the grounds for a radical politics in the midst of climate collapse? In the waning days of late capitalism, fantasies and nightmares of the end remind us that the violent extractivism in which we participate daily will not continue world without end, amen. Rather, the eco-apocalyptic indicates our yearning for a purifying, divine violence that might restore the possibility of agency here, and in the hereafter.
None have given more insightful and sustained attention to the specter of the apocalyptic in our contemporary discourse than constructive theologian Catherine Keller. Apocalyptic thinking, as Keller’s capacious work of cultural critique and political theology shows, is not one thing. Rather, it’s a constellation of polarities of good and evil that anticipate a cataclysmic showdown. By limning the specter of these revelatory discourses, Keller generates a typology of apocalyptic logics: crypto-, neo-, and counter-apocalypticisms.
Some of the apocalyptic ascriptions that animate our popular discourse can be tongue-in-cheek, what Keller would identify as crypto-apocalyptic. They operate below the level of conscious awareness. While we may not acknowledge their influence, the cryptoapocalyptic leads us to expect burning rainforests, massive oil spills, and super-storm floods. Calling up such apocalyptic images operates as a Schmittian flourish, a bit of theological bling in headline form. Is this a sign of the Biblical end times? “Of course not!” the crypto-apocalyptic prophet might parry. The Huffington Post editors surely did not intend to call up biblical apocalyptic when they titled their slide show. But even explicit denials of the apocalyptic cannot escape the pull of the logic. Such denials purport to be ultimately anti-apocalyptic, colluding with the reader to affirm that in spite of our perverse fascination with the end that no such gloom and doom is nigh. Yet, as Keller points out, the logic is part of the deep structure of our thinking. We cannot escape its irresistible pull.
In other cases, however, these invocations of the apocalyptic are dead serious. These neo-apocalypticisms seek to goad whoever will listen into exceptional, emergency action. This family of apocalyptic logics has an extremist duality. On the one hand, it seeks, as Walter Benjamin suggested to “bring about a real state of emergency.” By raising the stakes to cosmic heights, they call on those who would listen to gather the political will to avert the oncoming disaster. As Keller acknowledged in Apocalypse Now and Then, “we think we must ‘save the earth’” (14). Wishing for a messiah, we look for a charismatic leader or technological savior that can guide us to the promised land. But this is only one side to the extremist coin. The either/or logic of the apocalypse can also lead to a deep pessimism: “if we can’t save the world, then to hell with it.” From absolute power, to absolute powerlessness, apocalyptic environmentalists preach peak oil, massive population declines, and a libertarian survivalist ethics. These neo-apocalypticisms whiplash us between extremist action—whether through eco-terrorism or popular movement—or sectarian withdrawal while we wait for the inevitable end to come.
Keller is satisfied with neither of these options: the crypto- and neo-apocalyptic. She calls for and develops a mode of counter-apocalyptic that at once resists (counters) and engages (encounters) the apocalyptic. As a constructive theologian, her development of the counter-apocalyptic is a mode of “critical caretaking” in which Keller draws critically on ancient theological tropes while interrupting the habitual ways in which those tropes enter our popular imagination. Her aim is not, as she puts it in God and Power, to “put the genie back in the bottle” but to engage in a complex critique that enables political responsibility. By engaging our “collective dreams and nightmares” Keller aims to grant us resources to “manage this complexity responsibly” through “spiritual community and commitment.”
With Keller, we need a counter-eco-apocalyptic that might animate a radical politics in the midst of climate collapse. “But unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24b). The eco-apocalyptic cannot merely be a goad to action. It also must be an indictment of our pretension to action, our hubris to think that we are creators of our own destiny. As such, the message of the counter-eco-apocalyptic is not merely that the end is nigh. Instead: Repent! The reign of God has come near.