Thoughts on the Theme of Apocalyse and the Portrayal of the Nature of Humanity

Trade paperback cover of Buffy: Season Eight V...
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“It turns out I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.” ~ Riley, sale Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It’s interesting how often the shows I watch deal with the theme of apocalypse. Maybe I have some sort of fascination with the utter destruction of humanity, but that’s beside the point. The theme of apocalypse is a powerful tool for storytelling.

The Whedonverse is, of course, obsessed with the apocalypse. Whether it’s Buffy and the hellmouth, Angel taking on Wolfram & Hart, Echo dealing with a post-apocalyptic world brought about by the Rossum corporation, or Cabin in the Woods ending with an ancient god rising after the annual sacrifice failed, the end of the world is pretty much nigh in Joss Whedon’s world. (Even when Joss goes mainstream, like with The Avengers, the apocalypse is right there).

David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor
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But it’s not just the Whedonverse that is apocalypse-heavy. Look at Doctor Who. How many times in the seven short years of this new series has the Doctor and his companions worked to avert the end of time? At least once a season, but often more, especially during the David Tennant years.

All of this has got me thinking about how the nature of humanity informs and influences the nature of the apocalypses presented.

1) It’s not humanity’s fault. In this case, the apocalypse is brought about by outside forces, be it aliens or demons depending on the show. Humanity becomes either merely an innocent bystander who is largely unaware the imminent danger (think Joyce through the first two seasons of Buffy, or also Xander in the episode “The Zeppo.”), or they become the reason why the heroes fight. In the latter, humanity is precious, special and good and should not be wiped off the face of the earth. Thus, in Doctor Who, the Doctor speechifies quite a bit about how earth and humanity are important. The best example is at the beginning of Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor, as he’s telling the Atraxi to not mess with earth, and the image of all the previous doctors flash on the view screen of the alien menace.


2) It’s humanity’s fault.
In this case, humans are directly responsible for the resulting apocalypse. In Cabin in the Woods, after two victims of the annual ritual sacrifice survive and discover that they were manipulated to their deaths by an elaborate underground organization that sacrifices 5 young people every year using the gruesomest means possible. Now of course, there could be some sympathy for the office grunts behind this, as they are merely appeasing the ancient gods who threaten to rise and destroy humanity otherwise. But as Joss Whedon aptly summarizes on the commentary, sometimes “people are more important than humanity”. Another example can be seen in Dollhouse. Here, the world faces it’s apocalyptic future because people get greedy about being able to have the ability to be imprinted on any body they want and live forever.

In either scenario (not humanity’s fault/humanity’s fault), the primary motivator is the need for power. The alien, demon, or people who bring about the apocalypse usurp control that was not theirs to have. As well, in either scenario, humanity is on the brink of complete destruction. True, that in Dollhouse, for example, the good guys win, and find a way to undo the “wipes”, humanity has definitely been devastated.

Center panel: John the Evangelist on Patmos
John the Evangelist on Patmos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Christian apocalypse is quite different. First, we live in a tension as to the nature of humanity. Humanity is God’s good creation, precious and loved, but at the same time it is fallen and corrupt and tries to seize control and power it does not have. Humans are free and have responsibility and will be judged for their actions and inactions.

Second, the Christian apocalypse is not about some god trying to seize power and control. Instead, the God of the universe, the God who created humanity, loved it and called it good is ultimately in control. He doesn’t usurp power, and he doesn’t unlawfully subjugate humanity. God does not have to swoop in like the Doctor who was visiting another plane unaware of what was happening on earth and at the last possible minute try to fix everything. God decrees and knows, and proclaims to us how it will end before it has even started.

Indeed, and here is the biggest difference, the Christian apocalypse is primarily redemptive. The Christian apocalypse is not about utter and total destruction. The earth and humanity will not be left in ruin, where the survivors are left alone to somehow bravely rebuild their lives. True there will be judgment (and violence). But even that judgment is redemptive. Earth will not be some burning desolate rock floating in the universe for the rest of eternity. Instead, the apocalypse brings about a new heaven and a new earth. Through the power and blood of the Lamb, sin that has infected and corrupted humanity will be eliminated. And the people of God will live in resurrected glory. The Christian apocalypse is not about hope of an ethereal life in heaven. The Christian apocalypse is about the hope of a physical, redeemed and resurrected life on earth. It’s about restoration to God’s intended purpose for humanity. It’s about reclamation wherein God reclaims his good creation from the grasp of sin.

The promise of a crown of life.

A call to repentance and to worship.

God dwelling with his people.

The song “Praise Yahweh” being sung by the multitudes.

The victory of the Lamb who vanquishes all evil.

A holy city, a new Jerusalem contrasted with the unholy city of Babylon.

A return and restoration of Eden.

Emmanuel, the king who promises to come quickly for his beautiful, sanctified bride.

 

 

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  • Charles

    Good thoughts. (See also the Christian Humanists’ take on apocalypses in literature, with post-apocalyptic Whedon goodness appropriately placed after the episode’s outro music: http://www.christianhumanist.org/chb/2011/11/the-christian-humanist-ipod-broadcast-episode-63-apocalypses/ )

    Interesting that all the apocalypses you describe are about destruction, not renewal. I wonder if this has any connection to the liberal progress myth (using the early definition of “liberal” rather than the current one, and the definition of “myth” as a culture-formative narrative rather than as a falsehood), in which our salvation comes from the linear accumulation of gradual improvements in the human condition, though human effort, until we eventually arrive at a utopian future (insert random Captain Picard speech from TNG Season One here). Any event that “breaks in” to interrupt this process of progress is therefore a bad thing (since I mentioned Star Trek, they do have their own version of an apocalypse in the form of the “Atomic Horror” of the mid 21st Century, but this is seen as a catastrophic undoing of progress, hurling humanity backward. We would have been better off in the Trekverse if humanity had just gotten its act together and made progress without the destructive stuff.).

    Is it odd that my parenthetical statements are becoming larger than my non-parenthetical statements? (Probably not. It’s just a function of either excessive or insufficient coffee consumption and the brain of an academic. Remember that this kind of brain produces books in which the footnotes take up more space than the main text. So carry on.) All right, then.

    So, if the liberal progress myth is guiding the construction of these apocalypses, then apocalypses are things to be avoided. An apocalypse either means that we failed to defeat the bad guys and thereby prevent an invasion/plague/giant hand/whatever, or that we messed up so bad that we destroyed the world. Further, anyone who is pro-apocalypse is therefore a mustache-twirling genocidal (omnicidal?) nutcase. (I’ve seen this in internet discussion threads, in which Christians are caricatured as people who hate the world and everything in it, giggling sadistically at the thought of everybody but them burning, touching themselves inappropriately while reading Left Behind) In the Whedonverse, apocalypses that aren’t our fault are always the work of demons and evil gods, while apocalypses that are our fault are the work of greedy capitalists, shortsighted government bureaucrats, or sinister ideologues. Always the bad guys. The good guys are defenders… not precisely of the status quo… but of keeping humanity on its slow trudge toward perfection (which is a kind of status quo, I guess).

    (For some reason, I feel the need to mention Dr Horrible. Because the status… is not quo. The world is a mess and he just… needs to rule it. Actually, that could work. We never actually get to find out what Dr Horrible’s plans are, beyond getting into the Evil League of Evil. He keeps talking about upsetting the status quo and cutting the head off humanity. Is cutting off the head of humanity sufficiently apocalyptic? Probably not. Oh! Wait! I bet Dr Horrible would see himself in terms of the liberal progress myth, just without the liberal part. Humanity will begin moving toward utopia, but only if he rules it.)

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  • Evan Hunt

    I really wish you had put some spoiler warnings at the top of this; I haven’t seen Cabin in the Woods yet and am disappointed that I now know the ending.

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