Okay, End of the World

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Threads of Redemption

Ancient Israel may not have had zombies, but they too peered down the cliff of chaos. Our doomsday apocalyptic stories echo the same kind of uncontrollable disaster embodied in the mysterious biblical figure Rahab—not the prostitute from Joshua, but a force one could call a “chaos monster.” Rahab is mentioned in litanies about the prevailing power of God such as Psalm 89:10 and Isaiah 51:9, which were times in ancient Israel’s history when there was great peril. Unpredictable and violent in its rage, Rahab (who is depicted sometimes as a sea monster) threatened to undo civilization with its confusion. The ancient Israelites certainly weren’t undergoing postmodern anxiety with such tales. Rather, they knew, as do we, that chaos is a real threat to our lives, one that is deeply felt and impossible to discount. But they trusted in the power of God’s redemption to bring them through.

Even in the darkest of these “chaos” apocalyptic stories, there are threads of redemption. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is as dark a tale as they come, but it is not nihilistic despair. It is a story of the power of love, particularly a love between parent and child, even when the rest of the world seems dark and hopeless.

The popularity of zombie literature is not a sign of a cultural propensity toward death or despair. It reveals our fear of being in some way alive and yet completely without human agency—stuck between life and death, animated but not conscious. We read zombie literature, I would argue, because we deeply value the richness of human life. The novel (and now movie) Warm Bodies is a creative exposition of this theme because it dares to tell a zombie tale of redemption: If a zombie wills to live and is loved, can he become human again?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Warm Bodies was written by a Christian. Redemption, of course, is the great insight we have to offer our distant apocalyptic cousins. If stories such as The Hunger Games or The Road portray a negative reality about our future, biblical apocalyptic stories offer us a positive reality as well. In fact, biblical apocalyptic literature is rightly balanced to offer us rich and powerful imagery for both: negative apocalyptic tales of the great red dragon of Revelation 12, or the wailing songs in the temple (and the pile of dead bodies cast out—ugh) in Amos 8; positive apocalyptic visions of the wolf lying with the lamb in Isaiah, and the Tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations in Revelation 22. These negative and positive stories explain the reality of the world we inhabit—one that sits between catastrophe and eucatastrophe (J.R.R. Tolkien’s word for a surprisingly hopeful turn of events when all seems to be lost.) They explain, in other words, the truest and deepest story of them all: the story of redemption.

Biblical apocalyptic stories tell us two important truths that we must hold in tandem.

One (and here is where we can find endless overlap and discussion with a much wider apocalyptic audience): What we do matters. It really matters. Our choices have consequences not just for us, but for all of humanity. We are called to live life responsibly and in step with the ways of God and the path of life. We must hold our human agency given to us through God’s Spirit with reverence. That’s our part of the covenant. We are to be God’s people, and that has always meant living as a people of hope.

Two (and here is where we offer a deeper second dimension to contemporary apocalyptic stories): What God does matters. And God is faithful to bring his promises to fruition in due time. Our future rests not on our actions, but on the will of God to make new all of creation. We must act, but we must also trust. In fact, we must act because we trust. Otherwise, we are no different than those caught in doomsday despair. Without eschatological hope (the trust that God will make things right in the end), every lament psalm would end in nihilistic despair. But those heart-wrenching psalms always include a turn at the end—a turn toward hope for the future. They end not with “oh well” or even “the end,” but with “and yet . . .” The deepest story of them all is that we thought we were veering toward catastrophe and, instead, discovered eucatastrophe. God redeems. God makes right and whole and just and good because that’s who God is, and that’s what God does. And it matters.

This is the heart of apocalyptic response. The “and yet” is a trumpet sound of hope in the face of despair. This steely redemptive resolve is likely why we resonate with the characters in apocalyptic narratives. Their courage and dogged hope enliven our own desire to follow in the ways of life, to seek a way forward even in the most impossible situation. We are agents of the “and yet” who hunger for redemption. Perhaps that is part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

The God we follow is steadfast and faithful, slow to anger and abounding in love, always with redemption at the ready. So the truth of apocalyptic stories should be obvious to those of us who follow Jesus. The cure for a dystopian society is not a utopia. It’s the gospel. It’s the reign of God and the recreation of all things. Utopia hinges upon humanity getting it right—all together, all at the same time. The reign of God rests instead on the sure promise of God to redeem us, to break into human history in a way that is sure to be surprising, unexpected and welcomed—particularly in light of a zombie apocalypse.

1. If you are interested in reading more, Julie Clawson has written a book called The Hunger Games and the Gospel (Patheos Press, 2012), http://www.amazon.com/Hunger-Games-Gospel-Edition-ebook/dp/B007HG1H0W.

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