The Ultimate Apocalypse

Just in time for spring, this one comes to us from our fellow survivor, Zack […]

Mockingbird / 3.21.17

Just in time for spring, this one comes to us from our fellow survivor, Zack Verham.

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?” – The First History Man (Mad Max: Fury Road)

“And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” – 1 John 5:11 (NRSV)

My all-time favorite book is Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s a complete four-course science fiction buffet for nerds across the land, and it’s fundamentally post-apocalyptic. The world-building Herbert undertakes is extravagantly meticulous, and the universe as it stands when the book opens on the Atredies family on planet Caladan has had many thousands of years to develop beyond a series of cataclysmic events which ultimately saw humanity enslaved by “thinking machines.” In humankind’s subsequent war against these machines, the use of atomic weapons left deep environmental scarring on several planets, completely destroyed Earth, and caused colossal trauma to the human race (catch any parallels with The Matrix?).

In Dune proper, this trauma is vaguely referenced but ever-present in the psychological makeup of the characters, their politics, and the cultures they inhabit. Even ten thousand years after this conflict, there are still deep social stigmas against computers of any shape or form, and humankind universally abides by a deeply revered treaty known as the “Great Convention,” which completely bans the use of atomic weaponry. These two political and cultural anchors heavily influence the universe as it exists at the beginning of the novel. Even though humanity has survived the apocalypse, and even though enough time has passed that the narrative itself is not classically post-apocalyptic according to the constraints of genre, humanity in Herbert’s universe was forced to the brink of annihilation. Although humankind endured, its existence was fundamentally altered by its encounter with near-extinction.

I’ve always loved all things post-apocalyptic. From archetypically apocalyptic films like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Matrix, to beautifully absurd cartoons like Adventure Time, to computer games like Fallout 3/4 and Total Annihilation, to books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, I can’t get enough of the stuff. The end of the world. The deconstruction of creation. Humanity rising from the ashes into a brutish, fresh, horrifying, and sometimes (paradoxically) beautiful existence, forced to reckon with the consequences of its decisions. These stories draw me in like a magnet.

The diversity in media which draws on post-apocalyptic themes is incredible: what about the end of the world is so interesting to us that it appears in both gritty action films like Mad Max, and children’s cartoons like Adventure Time? It seems to come down to two fundamental themes which are common to most post-apocalyptic stories:

1. Post-apocalyptic narratives recognize that, on a global scale, there is some validity to our collective fears regarding the annihilation of civilization and creation. We (or at least I) harbor the fear that the brokenness of humanity will finally win out. This is especially true in our current fold of history, which is contextualized by two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the deployment of nuclear weapons. These sorts of anxieties also materialize in the theater of my daily life as fears of broken relationships, failure, that my life won’t amount to anything, or any other number of “personal apocalypses.”

2. More importantly, post-apocalyptic narratives hold out hope for the redemption of humanity, the Earth, and ourselves — even in the face of catastrophic failure, complete loss, and the constant threat of nothingness. This is encapsulated beautifully in a line from Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth movie in the series of films which narrate the myths surrounding Max Rockastansky, a larger-than-life nomad of the post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland:

“Look, it’ll be a hard day. But I guarantee you that a hundred and sixty days’ ride that way, there’s nothing but salt. [Then, pointing the other way] At least that way, we might be able to, together, come across some kind of redemption.”

Similarly, the tension in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road plays out in the tenacity of the loving relationship between the father and his son, which is constantly put to the test in the post-apocalyptic crucible of McCarthy’s coldly brutal horrorscape of ash and dust. Visual media often holds out hope for the ecological and environmental redemption of a scarred earth. Fallout 4’s depiction of Boston after nuclear war paints balmy, blue skies above wilderness which is attempting to regain a foothold on the ruins of civilization. Adventure Time takes a more manic approach to ecological redemption by placing pink bubble gum queens, stretchy yellow dogs, and Korean-speaking rainicorns (rainbow unicorns) alongside rusting nuclear warheads in the opening credits. There are lots of other examples to draw from here. The point is simply that, even as the world ends, hope remains in its various forms throughout these stories, however subtle and hard to grasp that hope may be.

Christianity addresses these themes head-on. The centerpiece of the faith is the place where apocalypse and hope meet: the cross. The Gospel has much to say on how these two common themes of post-apocalyptic narratives relate to both the brokenness of humanity and, more fundamentally, God’s grace. In The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann writes:

“There is a truth here: it [the cross] is set up in the cosmos in order to give future to that which is passing away, firmness to that which is unsteady, openness to that which is fixed, hope to the hopeless, and in this way to gather all that is and all that is no more into the new creation” (219).

Earlier, he states:

“The one will triumph who first died for the victims and then also for the executioners, and in so doing revealed a new righteousness which breaks through the vicious cycles of hate and vengeance and which from the lost victims and executioners creates a new mankind with a new humanity” (178).

For Moltmann, the precise point which appears to deconstruct reality most completely (in the death of God on the cross (The Crucified God, 227)) is also the point which gives us hope for the future, because God has revealed himself precisely within the nothingness and the despair and the hopelessness of Jesus’ death. Similarly, we have concrete hope in the new creation initiated by Jesus’ crucifixion, even when the present appears particularly dire and senseless and hopeless. “God’s being is in suffering and the suffering is in God’s being itself, because God is love” (The Crucified God, 227).

The Gospel states that God has chosen to reveal Himself in the most fundamental of apocalyptic catastrophes: the death of the One through whom all things were made (John 1:3) on the cross. In catastrophic and complete destruction, God is present. The Gospel also states that, through Jesus’ resurrection, the godforsaken, empty, and broken pieces of humanity are called into a new existence which is hopeful and redemptive. Because of God’s grace, this fundamental apocalypse is not only survived, but new, vibrant life paradoxically springs forth from it. The grace of God promises our ultimate flourishing in God’s new creation, both on a collective and personal level. For humanity as a whole, this promise encompasses a new creation where “…he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

This redemption is summed up perfectly by Jake, the stretchy dog who inhabits the zany land of Ooo after the Great Mushroom War in the Adventure Time mythos. Speaking to his best friend Finn, Jake says: “Dude, sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.” This is a light re-imagining of the fundamental Christian claim that Easter follows the cross, that death is enveloped by vibrant life, and that even the most severe and primal of apocalypses is overcome by grace. Even if, in the midst of my personal apocalypses, this reality is difficult for me to believe, it is more real than the end of the world.