Advent and Apocalypse

When seen through human eyes, truth comes divergently. On three separate days, just a couple of weeks before the presidential election, I happened to have back-to-back conversations with three friends of impeccable sincerity and insight.

All three passionate Christians, all three actively engaged politically, and all three with perspectives on the recent political campaigns that diverged, and also bordered on the apocalyptic.

Mind you, these were conversations that occurred before the election. On day one, I spoke with a friend who believes (as I do) that we human beings are despoiling the planet and placing in the balance the human future and the future of all things living. She went on to argue — forcefully and in the direst of terms — that unless the lifelong environmentalist, Al Gore, were elected president, all might be lost and apocalypse might then ensue.

On day two, I spoke with my second friend, who believes (as I do) that the moral fabric in the country seems to be coming unraveled and that people no longer have the attention span or the intellectual skills to carry on a sustained argument about the right, the good and the true. He went on to argue — just as forcefully and as apocalyptically as my first friend — that unless the good and decent man, George W. Bush, were elected president, all might be lost and who knows what might then ensue?

On day three, I spoke with my third friend, who believes (as I do) that, when one surveys the complete political spectrum, both in this country and around the world, the presidential candidates of the two major parties seem actually to be not so far apart on a number of issues, differing more about ways and means than about ends and goals. He went on to argue — with great idealism — that only a vote for the consumer advocate, Ralph Nader (he had also been impressed earlier on by the Republican candidacy of John McCain), could wrest power from the special interest groups and restore our American democracy. Without such a revitalization of the polity, he lamented, all might be lost, and who knows what might then ensue?

Just weeks before the election, in the perspective of all three of my friends, the country seemed to be on the verge of a meltdown in which everything was at stake. We all know what happened next. Election day came. A contest that had lulled many people to sleep all of a sudden took on great political and constitutional urgency. Pundits weren’t sure what to make of it. Did it mean that we are a nation whose political views are radically divergent, split down the middle, and intractably divided? Or did it mean that we are just a nation of moderates and centrists who really prefer meliorism rather than change, whose highest desire is for all sides to be represented and to balance one another out?

During this season of Advent, as I remember these conversations with my three apocalyptically minded friends, I also remember that our Christian faith was born in a cauldron of apocalyptic expectation. The early church announced the imminent advent of a final end, an eschatological reality that would transform everything. The cry, “Jesus is risen,” meant that the first fruits of the final resurrection had begun; the final reckoning, when God would judge the living and the dead, settle all accounts and provide a new polity of eternal justice and peace, was almost here.

Though we Christians have been lulled into complacency by the delay of God’s coming in justice, the endurance of this apocalyptic hope throughout Jewish and Christian history is borne out in the comprehensive and impressive three-volume Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, edited by John J. Collins and recently published by Continuum. The cry, “How long, O Lord?” is a persistent one in Christian history, and Christian faith includes a conviction that everything is at stake — always and at every moment.

The events we have witnessed recently confirm what I have been suggesting throughout this Thanksgiving and Advent season, namely, that truth unfolds in our midst divergently. It comes to us, but not all at once. It comes to us, but in a way that causes each of us to see it differently. It comes to us, but it comes as the judgment and mercy of God. It comes to us apocalyptically, but we see it only in a glass darkly. As apocalypse — literally, the lifting of the veil — it clears the glass through which we now vainly peer, purifying it that we may see both God and one another face-to-face. Who knows what might then ensue?


William Stacy Johnson is the Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary.

Other viewpoints in this Advent series include The Promise of Advent and Down for the County.