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Welcome to the Apocalypse

Doomsday pronouncements may seem silly, but they underlie a troubling world view, says Concordia scholar.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | OCT 03 2012

Meet Canada’s man of doom: Lorenzo DiTommaso. The associate professor and chair of Concordia’s department of religion is a leading expert on apocalyptic, or doomsday, scenarios.

Dr. DiTommaso’s first foray into the apocalypse was his PhD dissertation on a Dead Sea scroll which described a New Jerusalem descending from heaven. He extended his scholarship from the ancient to medieval times, “and from there it was only natural that I started thinking about apocalypticism in its historical and global sense.” He has published widely on the subject; his forthcoming book, The Architecture of Apocalypticism (University of Oxford Press), is the first volume of a planned trilogy.

Apocalypticism, says Dr. DiTommaso, is cyclical. “When we look back on world history, we notice that there are certain times and places in which a greater percentage of people understand the world through this lens – and we’re in an upswing now” in the past 40 or 50 years, he says.

Nearly all apocalyptic scenarios are biblically based. There are references to the apocalypse in other religions, “but almost exclusively they are the result of contact with Western influences,” he says, adding that the lack of apocalypticism in Eastern religions is not a surprise. “You can’t have a definite end of the world if your view of time is cyclical.”

An apocalyptic prophecy, to be meaningful and relevant to believers, requires three key elements, he says. First, the world must be structured by a pervasive dualism – good and evil, traditionally. Second, there needs to be a “transcendental reality beyond this existence,” normally viewed as heaven. Third, this current existence is so bad that it cannot be restored.

The media like to mock apocalyptic prophecies, such as the pronouncement last year by American radio pastor Harold Camping that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. And, although it has been misinterpreted as a doomsday prophecy, much the same will likely happen with the “Mayan Apocalypse” scheduled for Dec. 21 of this year.

But, warns Dr. DiTommaso, buffoons like pastor Camping aside, apocalyptic beliefs are not harmless. “We still have people who fly planes into buildings. We still have populations that understand other populations apocalyptically and act accordingly. We still have political parties, even in First-World countries, that to a limited extend understand the world apocalyptically.”

Most importantly – “and this is the key impulse to much of my research,” he says – the apocalyptic world view is an adolescent world view. “It’s a simplistic response to complex problems … and it places responsibility for solving problems elsewhere, not on ourselves. In this particular day and age, that is potentially catastrophic.”

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  1. William Badke / October 3, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    We may wonder if anyone actually believes these things. But, sadly, they do. Amusing story: I was getting a car repair May 21, 2011 when a customer phoned the service department to cancel his appointment for new tires. He didn’t see much point in new tires, since the world would end. The service manager thought it was a joke and got an angry earful when the customer assured him that it was no joke. People in the Judaeo-Christian heritage may well see an end of days coming, but this kind of narrow apocalypticism can indeed be “potentially catastrophic.”

  2. Chris / October 3, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Fascinating article, and I’m no academic. I look forward to reading the book!

  3. Cautious Optimist / October 3, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    The real problem is usually between the ears and not in the wider world!

  4. Peter / October 4, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Apocalypticism and a belief in the possibility of an ‘eschaton’ or end of a world are not the same thing, though they are related. Judaeo-Xian beliefs are diverse, a great many not sharing what is actually more of a mainstream view of the potential end of our world. The potential collapse of western civilization is not a far fetched notion, however, and would likely not be caused by a few radical religious groups. If it occurs, it will be because of the vast network of what Ronald Wright has called “progress traps” that underpin and define our society. We take too much from others, and from the earth. It’s unsustainable. That means we’re in the process of destroying ourselves. Funnily enough, it is this kind of self-destruction that the Apocalypse (the book by this name) in the Christian scriptures anticipates, or uncovers (the meaning of the work ‘apocalypse’). The book states, “…the time came… to destroy those who destroy the earth” (11:18). Apocalypse is a warning, not the end itself. It’s really ironic how that marginalized yet ever influential book has become perfectly relevant to our society’s behaviour, and yet remains misunderstood by most believers, and cast off as religous extremism by the so-called ‘rational’ people among us; people leading the march toward self-destruction through unsustainable living.

  5. Robert Murray / October 5, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    It is apparent that this article considers apocalypses to be confined to areas of belief when we are firmly started on a truly apocalyptic and unfathomable journey into climate change based on scientific observations and analysis.

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