November 25, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 5

current issue
archive / search

    ‘Editors of the apocalypse’

    By Theresa Carson
    News Office

    Three years ago, three professors and a publisher sat at a kitchen table and mapped out a plan to record the history of apocalyptic thought in Judaic, Christian and Muslim traditions. Forty-two essays and 1,500 pages later, the three-volume Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism is available to all who have wondered what the phenomenon entails.

    “Thoughtful scholarship of the past several decades made it possible to do an encyclopedia of this scope,” said Bernard McGinn, originator of the project, the Naomi Shenstone Donnelly Professor in the Divinity School and a member of the Committee on Medieval Studies at the University.

    After a representative of Continuum Publishing asked McGinn if he had ideas for a book, the scholar called John Collins, Professor in the Divinity School and a member of the committees on Jewish Studies and the Ancient Mediterranean World, and Stephen Stein, a professor at Indiana University.

    Comprehensive treatment of the subject had never before been undertaken, Collins said. The time had come for a reference book that illuminated apocalyptic studies, a young discipline with roots tracing back to the 1920s.

    “Historical understanding is the necessary starting point of any intelligent understanding of the role of apocalyptic elements in present-day culture and religion,” McGinn said.

    The trio purposefully chose to design the book as an encyclopedia. “We wanted an encyclopedia instead of a dictionary–not brief entries but key essays written by the best experts that we could find,” McGinn said.

    They chose writers carefully, and the volumes, which cover three centuries, were completed ahead of schedule. “By and large, the contributors were on time, and the work was good. It didn’t need much editing,” McGinn said.

    Written for academics and educated laity, the contents include essays on theological history, art history, Biblical studies, literature and the effects of apocalypticism on pop culture.

    It was edited with an eye on what is yet to come. This encyclopedia “not just summarizes but carves new direction into the future. It sets an agenda for future scholarship,” McGinn said.

    Since none of the professors believe the world’s end can be predicted, they produced this encyclopedia for on-going use. Although anticipation of the new millennium and media attention have heightened the focus on apocalypticism, the subject itself is perennial, McGinn said. He hopes the encyclopedia will eventually be published in paperback form.

    Both McGinn and Collins have a message for people who fear the world’s end is near. McGinn stressed the importance of analyzing the symbolism of apocalypticism.

    “Apocalypticism is not meant to be taken literally,” he said. Throughout history, the concept has been used to justify disastrous actions; however, it can be used positively as well.

    “For instance, the present pope has made the coming of the millennium the major motif in the coming years,” McGinn said. “He’s using the power of apocalyptic symbolism to call Christians to more fervent practice of faith.” He also cited South African leaders as having positively employed apocalyptic themes. During the struggles against Apartheid, “imprisoned leaders used apocalyptic literature as powerful symbols to overthrow unjust systems.”

    Collins said not to worry. Apocalyptic studies have shown that the theme of global annihilation repeatedly appears in history and is constantly proven wrong.

    Ironically, the belief that the world’s destruction will take place at the end of a millennium is founded on a misconception, Collins said. “It’s actually based on a mistake. In the Book of Revelation, there is a thousand-year reign after the Second Coming,” Collins said. In other words, if read literally, the book predicts that the good will live on earth for a millennium after Christ comes again.

    Collins summed it up: “The end of the millennium invites you to think about the end of an age.”