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July 10, 2020
Unholier Than Thou
Apocalypse Now?

In This Episode

2020 has been a hell of a year. Every month we read a new headline that makes it seem like the apocalypse might be nigh. While there’s no “how to” guide for the end times, there’s one text that might be able to help: The Book of Revelations. Phil talks to Timothy Beal, professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University about what our obsession with predicting the end of the world actually reveals about us; and how really, the end of one world could mean the creation of a new one.




Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, This is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. 2020 has been one hell of a year. No, literally. It’s been a hell of a year. We opened in January with news of a suspicious and concerning virus, which quickly unfolded into a global pandemic of epic proportion. And if that wasn’t enough, just as many of us started to finally venture outside for the first time in four months, a case of the bubonic plague was just identified in Inner Mongolia.


[voice clip] From the very first case of COVID-19 to a new type of swine flu, and now the bubonic plague. One of the deadliest diseases in human history has been reported in China.


Phillip Picardi: All the while, strange weather events swept America, culminating in a summer hailstorm in New York City. But at least we have a highly-competent leader to guide us through all of this catastrophe.


[clip of President Trump] You know the virus that we’re talking about having to do, you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat . . . we think we have it very well under control, we think it’s going to have a very good ending for us, so that I can assure you . . . well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China. We’re going to see what happens. But we did shut it down.


Phillip Picardi: It can feel these days like it’s the end of the world, a real apocalypse. And I hate to quote Carrie Bradshaw, but it only feels apt so here goes nothing. [Sex and the City theme plays] I couldn’t help but wonder, is the apocalypse nigh? [music ends] Anyone with even a remote understanding of the Bible knows that the end times was well prophesied in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations, detailing catastrophic events and condemnation that would upend humanity as we know it. Many of us were taught to anticipate literal hell on Earth just before the second coming of Christ. Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ve wondered more than a couple of times over the past few weeks: Hey, Jesus, are you coming out or not!? Luckily for all of us, the end of the world is not quite that simple, no matter what your neighborly evangelical doomsday pastor tells you. To learn more, I spoke to a literal expert in the biblical apocalypse. That is not his official title. Timothy Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. He’s also the Editor in Chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts. He’s published 12 books including “Revelation: A Biography.” Here’s what he had to say about the so-called end of the world.


Phillip Picardi: Professor Bill, first of all, I just wanted to say welcome and thank you for being here.


Tim Beal: Thanks a lot, Phil. I’m glad to get a chance to talk with you. Call me Tim, please.


Phillip Picardi: Tim. OK. OK, Tim. Wonderful. Well, I know that today we are here to discuss something casual and lighthearted, which, of course is the end of the world, and specifically what the Bible says about the end of the world. And I understand that you have quite a long and complicated relationship with the biblical apocalypse. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about that.


Tim Beal: Sure. Happy to. Yeah. So I grew up mostly in Alaska in conservative evangelical Christian circles where there was all kinds of speculation and fantasizing, and obsessing really in some ways, about the end of the world and the apocalypse and how to understand the Book of Revelation in relation to that. You know, this was Cold War time, so back then it was the Soviet Union that was going to be, you know, this beastly sort of Antichrist figure, or maybe the United Nations. And there was this movie in 1973 called Thief in the Night, which was terrifying in this really kind of low-fi, low-fidelity, low budget sort of way. It was a movie that was shot in Des Moines, Iowa.


Phillip Picardi: I’m terrified already.


Tim Beal: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. Almost no professional actors in the film. It was shot on a budget of about $60,000. It had a kind of Night of the Living Dead feel to it, but it was this story of this young woman who was married and her husband had just become a Christian and she wakes up one morning and her alarms going off and the radios going off saying all these millions of people have suddenly disappeared, and she’s wondering where her husband is and she goes in the bathroom and there’s this shaver razor sitting in the sink just buzzing by itself because he had been raptured away, you know, because he was saved and she wasn’t. She was left behind in this terrifying world that was now being taken over by the United Nations and who really represented the beast of the apocalypse. And it was, it was scary in the same way Night of the Living Dead is scary, which is that it was sort of low budget, creepy, almost by mistake, but everyone in my circles watched that film. We would, it never showed in a movie theater, it played in church basements, community centers, stuff like that. We would watch it like every Halloween, but it shaped that culture. It shaped many people’s lives.


Phillip Picardi: So it’s interesting because all of this definitely speaks to the kinds of folks who, I guess, you know, you’re kind of pointing out can be particularly privy to believing in the Book of Revelation. And maybe back then it felt or maybe you’re implying that that was a smaller group of people, a minor—a cultural minority. I think it’s interesting when we compare that to our present day, because right now it feels like everyone is talking about the apocalypse, and they’re citing the Bible on Twitter, which is never a place where I see the Bible cited. It’s a Godless place in fact. What exactly does the Book of Revelation say about the apocalypse?


Tim Beal: It says a lot about apocalyptic imagination. And it’s a great example of of an apocalyptic imagination at work. It says nothing about the rapture and it says nothing about the end of the world. It’s part of, part of what’s going on is this perfect mix of the fact that Revelation is really impossible to understand, it’s this collection of these very weird and often very violent, misogynistic visions of, you know, bloodbaths and of weird creatures with eyes all around their heads and multiple wings and, you know, locusts with human faces and all kinds of bizarre things that we don’t know what to do with. So the combination of these really compelling and weird and often violent images that can be read so many different ways, plus the way social media works, which is circulating small bits of things, bits of text, memes, you know, small images and so forth, that easily kind of detached from the Book of Revelation and circulate in our culture. Combine those two things with basic biblical illiteracy, so someone can come along and say the locusts in Africa are the locusts from the Book of Revelation, or the murder hornets or whatever. And, you know, the coronaviruses is the fourth horsemen of the apocalypse, because that’s a plague and it says it’s going to wipe out this many people, and because we, most of us have never read the Book of Revelation, we say, well, the sounds right. But in fact, the end of the Book of Revelation is not an end of, is not imagining the end of the world, it’s imagining the renewal of the world. And so you have this renewed world at the very end after all of this destruction happens and Christ returns to, you know, sort of reign on Earth. All of the dead who’ve died any time in the world’s history are resurrected.


Phillip Picardi: Oh gross.


Tim Beal: I know, right? And then they’re judged and some go to the lake of fire and the other ones get to stay in this newly renewed world with perfect bodies that you know, and all of that. And then there’s a new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven and descends and becomes the kind of capital. So it’s not an end of the world. It’s really, I would say it’s an image of the edge of the world, like an ending that is also a beginning. You know, things sort of return to chaos in order to be born out of chaos again, a new kind of order coming out of that chaos. So I don’t think that biblical tradition really has an imagination for absolute endings.


Phillip Picardi: Hmm, that’s so interesting, yeah, because even life doesn’t ever really end, you know, technically speaking, or I should say spiritually speaking, and that actually does feel quite pertinent to the moment, doesn’t it? This edge of the world that we’re living on, because, you know, aside from all of the plague-oriented stuff that definitely exists and has been a topic of conversation, we’re also seeing massive civil unrest, demonstrations all over the world. Coronavirus is not just a public health crisis, but it also feels in many ways like a social justice crisis, right?


Tim Beal: Absolutely.


Phillip Picardi: The way that it is impacting the poor and the way that it’s disproportionately impacting Black and LatinX people.


Tim Beal: Right.


Phillip Picardi: And, of course, the election of Donald Trump and all of the havoc that has wrought by increasing white supremacy and hate crimes among marginalized people, which feels like, you know, a real reversion of progress. I can understand why a lot of people would be dismayed enough to believe that, you know, that we are living on the edge of this world. So if we go with that metaphor, Tim, what happens after we reach the edge? What does the Bible offer us for afterwards?


Tim Beal: I think biblical tradition tends to imagine, as I said, endings as beginnings, and so there is this notion of a kind of new birth or new beginning coming out of an ending or a death. So it’s not an absolute ending. It is a kind of image of redemption or renewal or something like that. Now, what you were just talking about, the way that, for example, this pandemic we’re in the middle of is, you know, disproportionately affecting and impacting people who are underprivileged, people who are already marginalized and the object of racism and sexism and all of those things, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the Book of Revelation, the original historical context for this text, probably was out of a community that was similarly marginalized and oppressed. So this, the context was an early Jesus movement before we even called it Christianity, right, in the context of the Roman Empire, where various communities, followers of Jesus, Jewish communities, were very much the minority community within this dominant Roman Empire and were marginalized and oppressed. And part of what the apocalyptic imagination offers to those who are on the margins, those who are enduring oppression, is a vision that re-casts what’s happening in the world at the time. So that in that ancient context, Rome, which is, you know, the in control of everything and an absolute power, suddenly is recast in the Book of Revelation as this diabolical, beastly anti-God power. And then the text imagines a time that will come soon when that diabolical imperial power will be overcome by God, who takes the side of the poor and the oppressed over against the powers that be.


Phillip Picardi: OK, I’m listening now! That sounds right.


Tim Beal: Right. And so this is, you know, if we read it in that way, if we read the Book of Revelation from the perspective of what we would call liberation theology, which is basically an understanding that sees God as taking the side of the poor and the oppressed over against the powers that be, it’s a very a political theology. It is a radical theology. It’s there in the Book of Exodus, where the Hebrew slaves are delivered from Pharaoh, the story of the resurrection of Jesus, who is, you know, executed as a criminal, is another exodus. It doesn’t it’s not accidental that it happens at the same time as Passover in the gospel stories, because that’s the celebration of the Exodus story, right? So it was perceived in that early context as a kind of overcoming of the powers that be, a redefinition of power. It’s a radical sort of reimagining of the social world that we are in and a revolutionary one.


Phillip Picardi: But I do find it interesting still to think about liberation theology in this context, because Christianity, if you really think about it, has become the religion of the oppressor in so many ways. If we think about imperialism, if we think about the conquest, colonialism, the generational havoc and traumas we have reached, the genocide that Christianity has been, you know, directly really a motivating factor for, at least a perceived factor for, a stated factor for—Christianity is now the religion that holds ostensibly the most power in the world. And what you’re saying is that it was initially started to really cause an upheaval of social order that favored the rich and the powerful.


Tim Beal: Right. Exactly, and so what happens in the history of Christianity is that, you know, it is that more marginal, you know, movement within the Roman Empire for centuries. But when you get to the early fourth century and Emperor Constantine becomes a Christian and makes Christianity essentially the the religion of the empire, all of a sudden the notion of the Roman church would have been a complete oxymoron, right, up until that moment and all of a sudden, it isn’t anymore. Christianity and imperial power are suddenly wed in that moment, and that changes everything. That changes everything in the history of Christianity. I would suggest, hopefully that maybe we are, as we see Christianity fading in terms of its influence and power, that we might actually be moving into a post-imperial context for Christianity. I’m hopeful that Christianity as a movement can once again become more of a minority voice, more of a marginal voice that isn’t so identified with imperial power.


Phillip Picardi: We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors.


[ad break]


Phillip Picardi: Let’s continue our conversation with Tim.


Phillip Picardi: I know we started this conversation by saying the Book of Revelation can sometimes feel moot or poorly interpreted or not the right answer to what people are talking about, and I guess what I’m trying to figure out is it actually does sound incredibly relevant to this moment, just not in the way that people are using it. Right?


Tim Beal: Right, right, right.


Phillip Picardi: We are seeing in our politics in America an increase in the amount of people who are calling for socialist policies, candidates who are more progressive and are moving the Democratic Party in a progressive direction, and a public, by the way, that is supporting, you know, many of those candidates and many of those policies. And, of course, what we’re witnessing right now, you know, we are speaking in the midst of the protests happening against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd. And it feels important to say that, like, if the Book of Revelations is talking about an upheaval of intrinsically bad and elitist policies, it actually is quite an interesting place to look in this moment.


Tim Beal: Yeah, I think that’s really well said, Phil. I think that it’s partly about how we use these texts and how they are weaponized, that we have to really be careful about that. It’s one thing to say that I get how a context of oppression and disenfranchisement can inspire a kind of apocalyptic vision that’s hopeful, that says this empire that seems like it’s going to go on forever is not. It’s not what God wants. It’s not God’s vision for God’s people, and it will have an end. It will have its own demise. That’s an amazing thing to think about. It’s when you get into those details with the Book of Revelation and say, well, this means this, and this means this, and you kind of read it as this kind of encoded message about how it’s all going to unfold, that that things get dangerous. And I worry that we could see a convergence of how that works in apocalyptic language with what’s going on with the virus, and that after the virus, we’re still going to be carrying some of this language into social ways of thinking. Right?


Phillip Picardi: Right. And that’s why I was interested to see that you really have strong negative feelings about the ways that the Book of Revelation is interpreted. And maybe this is a strong word, but I would say weaponized by certain faith groups. Can you explain more about who is using this book and how they are using it to marginalize people?


Tim Beal: Yeah, we can think of all kinds of different instances over time where this has happened. I think right now, you know, for the most part, the folks who read the Book of Revelation and try to apply it to what’s going on in the world are conservative. They’re almost to a person, male. You almost never see women really getting excited about the Book of Revelation, which I think is a really fascinating dimension of this. I grew up in those circles. My mom is still part of those circles, she does not understand why all these men love to obsess about the Book of Revelation, which is fascinating. We saw it used to demonize Hillary Clinton, used to demonize the Obamas and continue to do so. You know, it is a, sometimes I described the Book of Revelation as an ‘othering machine’ or a ‘monster making machine.’ You plug people into these roles of the beast, the whore of Babylon, Jezebel, you know, the Red Dragon—you plug them into that and all of a sudden they’re not just the people you disagree with, they are diabolical. They’re on the devil’s side over against God. Right? And then we’re on God’s side and they’re on, you know, the devil’s side.


Phillip Picardi: Right. And that’s why I was interested to see that you really have strong negative feelings about the ways that the Book of Revelation is interpreted. And maybe this is a strong word, but I would say weaponized by by certain faith groups. Can you explain more about who is using this book and how they are using it to marginalize people?


Tim Beal: Yeah, a lot of people do. I mean, that’s the, that’s the culture I grew up in. You wanted to be saved so that, you know, have, you know, be saved by by Jesus and be a Christian so that you got raptured up before, you know, the shit goes down in the world and before it gets really terrible. That was what the Thief in the Night story was about. She was, you know, just thought everybody needed to be good and wasn’t actually, you know, hadn’t converted and her new husband had, and she got left behind. And it was basically, you know, a horror story about any teenager or young adult’s biggest fear, which would be to be left alone, without your friends, without your family, who’ve all been saved, and in this world where you can’t trust anyone anymore.


Phillip Picardi: So they think that God is just kind of like Thanos like snap them out of the universe right before things get really bad?


Tim Beal: Yeah, I don’t personally look at it that way. Part of my job as a religionist is to understand these people who do, and see how they are making meaning in that way.


Phillip Picardi: You know, one of the funny thing about, funny things about all of this, though, is about how you interpret God. Right? Because in all of the ways that Jesus spoke about God in the New Testament, it’s hard to look at God as someone who really believes in fire and brimstone. And especially when you think about, like you were calling it liberation theology, even Christian theology at the root of it, you know, justice is really a through-line of both the old and the New Testament, which is one of the only reasons why I’m even engaging in conversations like these to better understand faith, is to get to the root of what faith is about. And I keep on coming back to this idea that faith is about justice, you know, with the coronavirus. Does that make sense? If God sent the coronavirus, why is the coronavirus directly impacting Black and brown people, poor people, elderly people, people who are already sick? Right? How is that anything to do with justice? Or when we think about the locusts who are multiplying and wreaking havoc in the Horn of Africa right now, causing massive food instability and, of course, further aggravating any sort of geographical tensions that exist there, that’s another way that a so-called plague is actually just making life harder for people who already were marginalized to begin with. And I just don’t see how anyone could look at these things and think, God did this or God wanted this. It feels perverse to me.


Tim Beal: Yeah, I don’t personally look at it that way. Part of my job as a religionist is to understand these people who do, and see how they are making meaning in that way. And one thing to keep in mind in terms of that through-thread that you describe, which I think is right, about justice, that that’s where the arc is always bending, is that the Bible is not a book, it’s a collection, it’s really a library of different texts. It’s not univocal. It isn’t of one voice with itself. So different texts disagree with one another about these kinds of questions. Some, you know, are leaning more toward an understanding of justice that you and I, I think, agree on. Others might be thinking of justice more in terms of, you know, order and structure and maintaining the system the way it is.


Phillip Picardi: I think that’s really interesting, especially in this moment where it feels really hard, it feels really hard right now to be in touch with faith. And on the other hand, it feels like a time where so many people are rethinking their relationship to faith and maybe having a, quote unquote “come to Jesus” of their own and in their own way. And with that in mind, I wanted to ask you just in closing, it’s easy for us to see the patterns that I guess can exist when it comes to the apocalypse. It’s easy for us to point to the locusts and the coronavirus and Donald Trump and the fires at the White House, and say that, you know, the Bible says that the apocalypse is nigh. Right? On the other hand, I am wondering, as someone who is spiritual yourself, where are you finding God in this moment?


Tim Beal: Thanks for that question. I, I sort of, you know, move between being a scholar of religion in which my own religious experience is kind of data that I look at, along with other kinds of data, to think about how people, you know, how religion operates and how people make meaning through it and with it. And then I’m also a person of faith as you picked up. So for, I think for me, you know, part of the answer to that is my own community. It’s not reading the Book of Revelation. [laughs]


Phillip Picardi: [laughs] Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.


Tim Beal: Thank you. This was, this was fun. I’m glad we got to talk.


Phillip Picardi: I hope that this episode has, in a way, assuaged any of your legitimate or metaphorical concerns about the end of the world. Talking to Timothy certainly made me think more critically about what I learned when I read and studied the Book of Revelations in high school. But more importantly, it made me think about WHO should be worried in this moment. I know so much of the apocalypse discourse, if you will, is offered in jest, and I get it. It’s funny. But a more critical part of me wants to call attention to just how egotistical an even American-centric it is. Think about it. All over the world there have been stories of suffering, climate catastrophe, poverty and disease for years, decades even. Most of these stories are swept under the rug or are entirely ignored by Western media, despite the very fact that Western greed, colonialism and capitalism are at least partially to blame for their existence. Take climate change, for example. Who pollutes the atmosphere the most? Us. Versus what people are facing its worst ramifications? Not us. I get that these headlines and disruptions to our daily lives can feel a lot like the world around us is crumbling, but more than anything, I hope this moment in time can give the privileged among us—myself very much included—a healthy dose of perspective. I do not believe that it is the end of the world. But to quote my friend Chani Nicholas from Episode 3, it’s more likely the end of A world. So just think if a new world really does emerge after all of this, who will you be in it? How will we help build it, and how will we change to make sure it’s a better and more equitable place for all?


Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media Productions. Our producers are Adriana Cargill and Elisa Gutierrez, with production support from Alison Falzetta and Lyra Smith. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and our executive producer is Sarah Geismer. Thanks for listening.