COVID-19 has brought new life to well-worn tales from the Bible. You don’t have to be a believer to find resonance in the Easter story of being trapped in a tomb waiting for the stone to be rolled away. Or of Passover: families sheltering in place as a plague of death descends.
But another biblical motif or metaphor may prove more fruitful — the apocalypse — but not as we know it. The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek apokalupto, which means “unveiling” or “revelation”. This etymology is preserved in the title of the last book of the New Testament, commonly called in English The Revelation of John — or simply Revelation — but in the original Greek is literally The Apocalypse. And while this text describes plagues, extinctions and other disasters up to and including Armageddon itself — these events are not what gives the book its name.
What makes it an apocalypse is its framing as a special insight, an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek into reality provided to the narrator John — a literal revelation. As John describes it, in an ecstatic, visionary state he is invited into heaven itself. From this perspective, events on Earth, no matter how inexplicable or strange, are now given meaning. John sees what is really going on.
I’m fascinated that some commentators use this language of apocalypse to describe the consequences of COVID-19. Journalists, politicians and economists deploy expressions such as “uncover”, “laid bare”, or the “stripping away of layers”. As new UK Labour leader Keir Starmer said in his acceptance speech: “This virus has revealed the fragility of our society. It’s lifted a curtain … We can see so clearly now …”
The terrible immensity of what this virus has done — and is still doing — should never be glossed over. But perhaps even more significant is the pandemic’s revelation about what was already going on. The UK and the US are my prime focus here, but many if not most of these points apply to other nations.
We can see so clearly now such fragility and fracture in the way healthcare and research sectors are disregarded and underfunded; the marginalisation — to the point of literal expendability — of elderly and disabled people; the cruel links between race, health, life-expectancy and poverty; the disconnect between the money and adulation our “celebrities” receive and what they contribute to society; the prioritisation — in many circles — of the metaphorical health of the economy over actual human health; the emptiness of the xenophobic cant of “border protection”, or wall-building, or Brexit; and, perhaps most importantly, the rarity of humane, wise and decisive leadership.
In seeing these things, and seeking to uncover their causes, we must recognise that we have been going along with them until we were forced to look. And when we search for who to blame, we cannot exempt ourselves. Our challenge when we return to normal is to retain the apocalyptic insights that COVID-19 has granted us at such terrible cost — so that we don’t return to normal. As the curve of new infections flattens, certain voices are clamouring that now is the time the loosen lock-down restrictions, re-open businesses and permit larger gatherings.
We can see though, that behind their call to open up society lies a desperation to slam shut the apocalyptic window and pretend we never saw a thing. To gaslight us back into going along with it.
Despite our anxiety, we need to pay attention to what COVID’s lifting of the curtain has revealed. We must resolve that what has been seen does not become forgotten in our relief but provides our impetus to action.
Just as in John’s apocalypse, not every revelation has been one of horror or devastation. In heaven, John encounters moments of joy and singing, and there have been glimpses of these on Earth, too — concerts on balconies, karaoke on Zoom, the joys of taking a daily walk, spotting bears in windows. While there is profiteering and panic, there is also the most moving evidence of human decency, self-sacrifice and love.
The most encouraging revelation from our COVID-19 apocalypse is what it has shown about our ability for change, not just at an individual level, but in deep, systemic ways. Neoliberal governments can enact free childcare and widespread welfare reform, new hospitals can be built and functioning within weeks. Even Christian churches can ditch centuries of tradition in days. Across the world, institutions, practices and ideologies that seemed carved in stone have shown themselves written on the wind.
Things were the way they were because we made them that way, or we let them be. And we have seen that we can remake them. Of course, such volatility is dangerously ripe for exploitation. The question of what kind of world we want when we come out of isolation must be addressed now or other people — those who are accustomed to making such decisions — will answer it for us.
So where to begin? Apocalyptic language is not only found in the book of Revelation but throughout the Gospels. Jesus frequently uses it when he talks about the coming Kingdom of God, a now hidden but one day to be revealed society of justice and peace.
Jesus uses this apocalyptic language in the passage Sir Keir quoted in his speech, just after his reference to COVID-19 as lifting a curtain. “We can see so clearly now who the key workers really are,” said Sir Keir, listing National Health Service staff as well as cleaners, carers and others working at the frontline of the epidemic or to simply keep things functioning. “For too long,” he said, “they’ve been taken for granted and poorly paid. They were last and now they should be first.”
Imagine putting the lowliest, least-respected and poorest first — or at least something closer to equality. It would mean we accept that economic structures exist to benefit humans, not the other way around. For millions of people, COVID-19 is like hell unleashed on Earth. Perhaps by seeing it through apocalyptic eyes, we can change things here to make them just a little bit more like they might be in heaven.
Dr Sally Cloke is a Newcastle-based academic who writes about theology, philosophy, social justice and aesthetics.
Republished with permission from the June 2020 edition of the Aurora Magazine, the news publication of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.