The Transformation of Original Christian Apocalypticism into Modern Apocalypticism


Thomas J. J. Altizer


 Nothing is more unique about Christianity than its very genesis, a beginning issuing in a total and almost immediate transformation of an original Christianity, one without precedent or parallel in the history of religions, and one issuing in ultimate and comprehensive heresies and heterodoxies. Original Christianity is clearly an apocalyptic Christianity, one which virtually disappears in the first century of Christian history,  only to return in deeply heterodox expressions of Christianity, which are not fully born until the advent of the modern world. Orthodox Christianity can be understood as a genuine opposite of apocalyptic Christianity, and most clearly so in its apprehension of God, a God who is the absolutely primordial God, at which point orthodox Christianity is truly unique, for neither a pagan Hellenistic world nor the Oriental world
truly know the primordial, worlds denying every ultimate or absolute distinction between the present and the past, and thus closed to the primordial as such. Only orthodox Christianity knows the absolutely primordial God, thereby it can be understood as a pure reversal of apocalyptic Christianity, a reversal alone making possible its very advent. Now if orthodox and apocalyptic Christianity are truly opposite expressions of Christianity, then the advent of a totally apocalyptic Christianity would be the advent of the total opposite of orthodox Christianity, one not occurring until the end of Christendom, and one only made possible by that ending.

 Hence a pure or total apocalypticism does not occur until that ending, a total apocalypticism  impossible apart from earlier expressions of apocalypticism, and one in genuine continuity with those expressions, as can most clearly be seen in the Christian epic tradition. Allowing the names of Dante, Milton, Blake, and Joyce to stand for that tradition, here is an epic tradition that is an apocalyptic tradition, and one becoming every more fully and finally apocalyptic as it evolves. But that evolution is inseparable from the evolution of Christian heterodoxy, and if Dante is the creator of the Christian epic, already in Dante that epic is profoundly heretical, and not only because of its apocalyptic ground, but more deeply because this is the first Christian expression of a total vision, one not only truly correlating Godhead and the world, but knowing the world itself as a genuinely organic totality. This is a world going far beyond the world known by Aquinas or Christian scholasticism, to say nothing of the world known by patristic Christianity, and yet it is a world that will be reborn in the future, a world that is ever more fully and  finally a purely heterodox world. Nowhere is that heterodoxy more pure or more total than it is in the Christian epic, and if only at this point Dante, Milton, Blake, and Joyce are in genuine continuity with each other, but that heterodox continuity is simultaneously an apocalyptic continuity, and nowhere else may we more clearly observe the evolution of apocalypticism itself.

 Nothing is more distinctive of a pure or total apocalypticism than is this very evolution, and if we can know a genuine continuity between Dante and Joyce, just as there is an even clearer one between Milton and Blake, this is not only an apocalyptic continuity, but a heterodox one as well, and here apocalypticism and heterodoxy are not only inseparable, but finally indistinguishable. And what is commonly known as apocalypticism is vastly distant from this apocalypticism, and if apocalyptic scholars are ignorant of the Christian epic tradition, thereby they are ignorant of the ultimate depths of apocalypticism, yet depths which are in genuine continuity with an original Christian apocalypticism. This can most clearly be seen in Blakes revolutionary vision, which not only discovers the apocalyptic Jesus, a discovery occurring almost a century before this occurs in Biblical scholarship, but Blakes epic vision enacts the apocalyptic Jesus as the Crucified God, a crucifixion that is here the Self-Annihilation of God, a self-annihilation  here envisioned as a cosmic and historical self-annihilation, and one that we ourselves enact when we are regenerated in that apocalyptic Jesus who is the Crucified God. Blakes vision is far more profoundly Biblical than are any of our Christian theologies, but this is true of the Christian epic as a whole, as can most concretely be observed in the epic visions of Dante and Milton. Milton above all is our most Biblical poet, but, so, too is he our most Biblical theologian, as witness his De Doctrina Christiana, and if this truly important work is unknown in our theological worlds, those are truly non-apocalyptic worlds, and finally even non-Biblical worlds.

 Nothing is more forbidden in our theologies than a true or ultimate heterodoxy, if only thereby our theologies are inevitably either non-apocalyptic or anti-apocalyptic, hence they are closed to the Christian epic tradition, and likewise closed to the apocalyptic thinking of  Hegel and Nietzsche. Apocalyptic philosophy is born in Hegel and Nietzsche, thereby is born an ultimately revolutionary modern philosophy, one turning the world of thinking upside down, precisely thereby being genuinely apocalyptic, and inseparable from the advent of an absolutely new world. If only because of that advent, the thinking of both Hegel and Nietzsche is centered upon the death of God, a death that is an apocalyptic death, one ending an old world and embodying the advent of a new world, an advent truly inseparable from an eternal or apocalyptic death. For the first time the crucifixion is known in pure thinking itself, but this is a crucifixion which is resurrection, just as it is in Paul and the Fourth Gospel, an identification unknown in Biblical exegesis until the full advent of the modern world. Indeed, the Biblical depths of our new world are unknown in our theologies, and unknown if only because our theologies are non-apocalyptic theologies, and hence theologies closed both to our apocalyptic poetry and our apocalyptic philosophy. Yet that philosophy and that poetry are integrally related to each other, as can be seen in the integral relation between Blake and Hegel, and no less so the integral relation between Joyce and Nietzsche.
 Hegel is not only the first truly apocalyptic philosopher, but the first truly historical philosopher as well, thereby he is the creator of both historical and apocalyptic philosophy, and if only thereby Hegel is a genuinely epic philosopher. Yet Hegel was not only the graduate of a theological seminary, and who can forget that his seminary colleagues were Hoelderlin and Schelling, but a philosopher whose philosophy absorbs the whole body of Christian theology, and if thereby theology becomes philosophy, in the Christian epic theology becomes poetry itself. These are ultimate transformations of theology, but so, too, are they ultimate transformations of the Bible itself, and if the Christian can know the New Testament as an ultimate transformation of the Old Testament, and yet precisely thereby in genuine continuity with the Old Testament, so, too, can our apocalyptic poetry and philosophy be known as such  transformations. An ironic parallel to these transformations is the transformation of an original apocalyptic Christianity into an orthodox and Catholic Christianity, and if each of these transformations are total transformations, they are thereby fully parallel with each other, thus making possible a concrete and actual understanding of those total transformations of Christianity which have indeed occurred.

 Now just because such ultimate transformation is unknown to our theologies is no reason to think that it has not occurred, so likewise if it is alien to our historians it will inevitably be so alien if our historians are non-apocalyptic historians, for this transformation could only be an apocalyptic transformation, and one understandable only by a genuinely apocalyptic thinking. Once again let us call upon Blake, for Blake actually enacts such an apocalyptic transformation, and if only through Blake we can see that Hegel and Nietzsche do so as well, so that the idea of such a transformation is not a product of fantasy, but of genuine thinking and vision. The problem here is the very depth of such vision and thinking, and while that depth transcends all empirical confirmation, it does not transcend all actual understanding, an actuality that Hegel enacted as our ultimate verification, and a verification that we can know in knowing actuality itself. At this crucial point Hegel and Nietzsche are united, but so, too, are Blake and Joyce, and if Finnegans Wake is our most total imaginative apocalyptic enactment, this is one enacted in the very actuality of our speech, so that here is an apocalyptic actuality which is actuality itself. Such an actuality is both the ending of an old world and the advent of a truly new world, and while that ending is overwhelmingly clear, the advent of a truly or absolutely new world is an overwhelming challenge, and yet a challenge which is the challenge of apocalypse itself. This is the apocalypse which orthodox Christianity fully reverses, so that orthodox Christianity is the very opposite of apocalyptic Christianity, and a true or pure reversal of orthodox Christianity would be a genuinely apocalyptic enactment.

 This is the very enactment which actually occurs in the Christian epic tradition, one becoming ever more fully apocalyptic and ever more fully heterodox in its enactment, so that not only is there a full correlation here between heterodoxy and apocalypticism, but this apocalypticism is a fully historical apocalypticism, one actually realized in our history itself. Now we know how fully the Commedia embodies Dantes historical world, just as Paradise Lost embodies the historical world of early revolutionary modernity, these are embodiments that occur once again in the epics of Blake and Joyce, so that the Christian epic is a truly historical epic, and if only thereby is actually real.  So it is that this is an apocalypticism that is actually real historically, one comprehensively embodied in our history itself, but this is an evolving history, and a history destined for an apocalyptic explosion. Each of these epics not only records but embodies such an explosion, one not only anticipating but realizing even now apocalypse itself, thereby these epics are not only repetitions of the New Testament, but repetitions of a uniquely Biblical apocalypse. Hence it is not accidental that these epics are truly Biblical epics, that is essential to their nature, and essential to their nature as apocalyptic epics, and apocalyptic epics which are historical epics, and historical as non-Christian epics have never been. Just as it is an illusion to think that Joyces Ulysses is actually modeled upon The Odyssey, it is an illusion to think that Blakes Jerusalem is modeled upon the Book of Revelation, for these modern epics are historical as ancient epic could never be, and precisely thereby are realistic as epic has never otherwise been, yet this is a uniquely Christian realism.

 Already this is fully manifest in the Commedia, and just as the Inferno embodies the advent of a uniquely Christian mimesis, that mimesis is originally an epic realism, and one destined to become a full and comprehensive historical actuality. Yet that very realism is an apocalyptic realism, as most decisively understood by Hegel himself, and if here the Absolute is actuality itself, that is an apocalyptic actuality, and precisely thereby actuality itself. Hegel was the first to understand this theologically, and if that inevitably entails the transformation of a pure theology into a pure philosophy, that is a transformation which is the transformation of a uniquely Christian apocalypticism, and hence the transformation of an original Christian apocalypticism. This is the transformation which is our deepest theological mystery, and one equally unveiled in our uniquely modern apocalyptic poetry and philosophy, an unveiling which is an apocalyptic unveiling, and thus a genuine repetition or renewal of the New Testament itself. That is a renewal which is a genuinely apocalyptic renewal, and if it is a universe removed from what is commonly understood to be modern apocalypticism, thereby we can understand such apocalypticism as a truly non-Biblical apocalypticism, and therefore a truly non-Christian apocalypticism, or an apocalypticism which is the opposite of a genuinely modern apocalypticism.

 Now just what is a genuinely modern apocalypticism? First, it cannot as such be other-worldly, or supernatural, or sectarian, therefore it is truly other than our common apocalypticisms, all of which are backward-moving apocalypticisms, fully rebelling against modernity itself. Indeed, true apocalypticism is inevitably and necessarily a forward-moving apocalypticism, therefore it is the very opposite of an orthodox Christianity embodying the movement of eternal return, and just as finally orthodox Christianity knows only a movement of return, finally an apocalyptic Christianity knows only an absolutely forward movement. But this is truly alien to our common apocalypticisms, therefore they are not genuine apocalypticisms, and themselves are fundamentally orthodox expressions of Christianity, thus confirming their ultimately non-apocalyptic identity. Not since medieval Joachism or the apocalyptic movements of the Radical Reformation have truly apocalyptic movements been explicitly or openly manifest as Christian movements, and if this is a consequence of the ever more decisive ending of Christendom, that is an ending making possible a truly new apocalypticism. Such an apocalypticism is fully embodied in Milton, Blake, and Joyce, and in Hegel and Nietzsche, too, but that apocalypticism is a fully historical apocalypticism, one truly alien to all sectarian expressions of apocalypticism, and to all other-worldly or supernatural apocalypticism as well.

 Thus a truly modern apocalypticism is a genuinely realistic apocalypticism, as fully manifest in Hegel and Nietzsche, but most overwhelmingly so in Joyce, and if this is an apocalypticism truly alien to the theologian and the church historian, it is no less an apocalypticism because of that. Indeed, since the French Revolution the church itself can only actually exist as a sectarian body or bodies, then theology becomes sectarian as it never was before, and the Christian imagination ever more fully ceases to be explicitly Christian, and by the late twentieth century either simply disappears or becomes wholly anonymous. All of this is a consequence of the ending of Christendom, but it also can be understood as a consequence of Christian apocalypticism itself, for it is enacted as such not only by both Blake and Hegel, but by Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, too. Literalism is a great curse of modern Christianity, a literal literalism that never previously existed, and one which itself is purely sectarian, and hence turned away from the great body of our history. It is such a literalism that refuses every truly new apocalypticism, or even every genuinely new expressions of Christianity, novum itself and above all an absolute novum is wholly alien to this literalism, and yet absolute novum can be understood to have been born with the advent of Christianity, and to be the very center of every Christianity which is a genuinely apocalyptic Christianity.

 Note the ultimate difference between absolute novum and the absolutely primordial, here we can most clearly see that apocalyptic Christianity and orthodox Christianity are true opposites, but thereby we can understand that orthodox Christianity arises as a reversal of apocalyptic Christianity, a reversal in which an absolutely forward movement passes into an absolutely backward movement, and a reversal of the absolute future creates for the first time the absolutely primordial. Yet it is also possible to understand that a reversal of orthodox Christianity, and above all so a reversal of an orthodox Christianity that has reached its own consummation, will create an absolutely new apocalyptic Christianity, and one in genuine continuity with an original Christian apocalypticism, or that apocalypticism which itself was reversed in the creation of orthodox Christianity. If we can understand that orthodox Christianity realizes its own consummation in the end of Christendom, and that thereafter all truly new life is closed to it, then a reversal of that dead body makes possible a truly new body, a new body which is a new apocalypticism, and an absolutely new apocalypticism. Thus this new body is possible only as a consequence of the death of God, the death of the orthodox God or the absolutely sovereign and absolutely transcendent God, one that is enacted in all of our genuinely new apocalypticisms, and apart from which these apocalypticisms would be truly unreal. Hence all of these apocalypticisms apprehend the dead body of God, one that Blake names as Satan, Hegel knows as abstract Spirit or the Bad Infinite, and Nietzsche knows as the deification of nothingness itself.

 It is in The Antichrist that Nietzsche knows the uniquely Christian God as the deification of nothingness or the will to nothingness pronounced holy, but this is the God whom Nietzsche knows to be dead, and whose death ushers in a new and absolute nothingness. Hence it is that a uniquely modern apocalypticism is inseparable from a uniquely modern nihilism, a deep underground not only making possible Hegels uniquely modern idealism, but Blakes uniquely modern apocalyptic vision. Accordingly, it is not until Schelling and Hegel that an actual nothingness truly enters philosophical thinking, and not until Blake that an absolute nothingness is imaginatively envisioned. That nothingness is a truly apocalyptic nothingness, hence it is inseparable from the New Jerusalem, or its absolute negation is inseparable from the full advent of the New Jerusalem, an absolute negation which Blake apocalyptically enacts as the Self-Annihilation of God. So likewise Hegel enacts it as an absolute self-negation, a self-negation which is a self-emptying, and finally a self-emptying or self-negation of Godhead itself. Thus the death of God is first envisioned in Blakes America in 1793, Blakes first apocalyptic work, just as it is first philosophically realized in Hegels Phenomenology of Spirit, which is Hegels most revolutionary work. Indeed, the death of God is enacted by every fully modern apocalypticism, hence it occurs not only in Dostoyevsky, but in Joyce, too, where its liturgical enactment is the very center of Finnegans Wake.

 Could such an apocalypticism be understood as being in genuine continuity with an original Christian apocalypticism? This is possible if we can understand the modern realization of the death of God as a renewal of the Crucifixion, a crucifixion which is most purely enacted in the New Testament by Paul, and by that Paul who is our first apocalyptic theologian. Just as Augustine is the most Pauline thinker in the ancient world, Hegel is the most Pauline thinker in the modern world, and not only in his apocalyptic thinking, but in his philosophical creation of an absolute self-emptying or an absolute self-negation, which is a genuine renewal of Pauls understanding of the Crucifixion. This Hegelian understanding is only possible by way of a uniquely modern realization of the death of God, or a uniquely modern realization of the Crucifixion, and if this is seemingly distant from Paul, it is nonetheless made possible by Paul, and by that Paul who is our first theological thinker. Hegel is a profoundly Lutheran thinker, too, and it is Hegel who most deeply understands Luther theologically, even understanding Luther as the inaugurator of the modern world. And if he is so by way of his proclamation of an absolute freedom, that is a freedom only made possible by the Crucifixion, and by that crucifixion which is the absolute self-emptying or self-negation of God. Luther, too, is an apocalyptic theologian, and precisely so as a Pauline theologian, the most Pauline theologian in modernity, who at this point is only rivaled by Hegel himself.

 Now even if Lutheranism is wholly non-apocalyptic, such a betrayal of the founder occurs throughout modern Christianity, a Christianity which Kierkegaard understands as the very opposite of original Christianity, and which Nietzsche in The Antichrist understands as the true opposite of Jesus. Just as the Jesus of both modern Catholicism and modern Protestantism is a wholly non-apocalyptic Jesus, it is only in a truly new apocalypticism that the original Jesus is actually reborn, a reborn and total Jesus who is the very center of Blakes vision, and whom Hegel can know as an absolute negativity, and that absolute negativity which is the actual source of an absolute actuality. The truth is that Hegel is a profoundly Christian thinker, the only thinker who absorbed the whole body of Christian dogma, and transformed it into pure thinking itself. But so, too, it is Christian epic poets who most fully embody Christian dogma poetically, only here that this dogma realizes a full imaginative expression, and if this effects a transformation of that dogma, it also effects an absolutely new expression of the Bible itself. While such an expression is wholly alien to every literalism, and to every ecclesiastical theology as well, it is nonetheless open to everyone, and above all to everyone in an apocalyptic age. Thus it is here that we can discover a truly invisible Christianity, a genuinely non-ecclesiastical Christianity, but just thereby a truly universal Christianity, and a Christianity inseparable from the fullness of modernity itself.

 Nothing is more paradoxical about a truly modern apocalypticism than its very universality, here it is at an infinite distance from every sectarian apocalypticism, and its own most integral voice cannot  only be heard by everyone, but spoken by everyone as well, as decisively enacted by the Here Comes Everybody of Finnegans Wake. Thereby we can learn that every external evangelism is alien to us, it is only an internal evangelism that is now real, an evangelism occurring in our every actual moment, so that our real task is to awake, and to awaken to that apocalypse embodied today, and in that today which is totality itself. Awake is the first word of Blakes Jerusalem, and even if this is the most intrinsically difficult of all epics, no other epic embodies such an actual universality, a universality not only comprehending every realm, but knowing everything whatsoever as being absolutely new. That is the very essence of a genuine apocalypticism, an apocalypticism knowing a universal body of Christ, and if that body is an absolutely new body, it now is actuality itself. Nothing is more alien to every theology upon our horizon than an apocalyptic body, but that is the body which is most primal in a uniquely modern apocalypticism, and not only is this body a universal body, but it is the only body which is finally real. Here we can see the infinite distance of this apocalypticism from every possible Gnosticism, and every possible dualism as well, so that a truly modern apocalypticism is not only an apocalypticism of the body, but of the resurrected body, and of that resurrected body which is now actuality itself.

 Is such an apocalypticism truly other than an original Christian apocalypticism, or a uniquely New Testament apocalypticism, or is it closer to this apocalypticism than any other form of Christianity, and above all closer to it than any possible Christian orthodoxy? If there is one thing that we can decisively know about a genuine Christian apocalypticism it is its ultimate distance from Christian orthodoxy, and if we can know that Christian orthodoxy was born by way of a pure reversal of an original Christian apocalypticism, we can know that a genuine Christian apocalypticism can be reborn by way of a pure reversal of Christian orthodoxy. That is just what occurs in the Christian epic, and not only in our apocalyptic poetry, but in our  apocalyptic philosophy, too, for Hegel and Nietzsche are those very thinkers who most profoundly and most comprehensively reverse Christian orthodoxy, a reversal which is the advent of a truly revolutionary philosophy, and one embodied in every fully modern revolution. This is just the perspective in which every manifest Christianity is truly reactionary, and if that has never been truer than it is today, not only can our world here be known as being truly dark apocalyptically, but that is a darkness truly essential to an apocalyptic dawn. There can be no apocalyptic dawning apart from the ending of an apocalyptic darkness, and if this is just the enactment which first occurs in Jesus, it is renewed in every genuine apocalypticism, which has given our world its only actual renewals of Jesus.

 Now if the original Jesus is an apocalyptic Jesus, and an apocalyptic Jesus not only proclaiming but enacting the actual advent of the Kingdom of God, that is a kingdom which is not a sovereign or transcendent kingdom, but rather a kenotic or self-emptying kingdom, a kingdom actually enacted in that crucifixion which is resurrection, or that crucifixion which is apocalypse itself. This is the kingdom which is reversed in Christian orthodoxy, but recovered or renewed in a new Christian apocalypticism, a new apocalypticism which is a reversal of Christian orthodoxy, and therefore a reversal of the orthodox God. This is just the point at which a genuinely new apocalypticism is most offensive, is most alien to everything that is manifestly Christian, or even everything that is given to us or is manifest to us as the world. If we now can understand the parables of Jesus as reversals of everything that is manifest as either God or the world, this is a reversal comprehensively enacted in a genuinely Christian apocalypticism, one bringing an end both to God and the world, or to everything that is manifest as either the world or God. Only that ending makes apocalypse possible, indeed, that ending is apocalypse, and is apocalypse not only as an absolutely new creation, but an absolutely new Godhead as well. This is the Godhead that is the very opposite of an absolutely primordial Godhead, and there is no greater assault upon primordial Godhead than a genuine apocalypticism, a genuine apocalypticism that can only know the absolutely new.

 In the face of everything that is manifestly Christian today who could believe that an original Christianity is an embodiment of the absolutely new? Or in the perspective of that embodiment can we know that everything that is manifestly Christian today is clearly non-Christian or anti-Christian, and above all anti-Christian in its absolutely backward movement, a backward movement by which alone it knows both God and Jesus? Is it our very apprehension of God which is most manifestly anti-Christian today, a God whose transcendent sovereignty is the very opposite of that Kingdom of God which Jesus enacted, and whose absolute authority is an authority making absolutely impossible every possible actual apocalypse? And if every openly Christian political obedience to God today is inevitably a reactionary movement, is that not a decisive sign of a contemporary Christianity which is an anti-Christianity, or a contemporary Christianity reversing everything that is originally Christian? If so, this is precisely what a new apocalypticism proclaims about every established or every manifest Christianity, one which Blake could know as the body of Satan, and that body of Satan which is Antichrist. Even Dante could know a church which exercises any temporal power or authority whatsoever as the Antichrist, and Dante was the first seer to envision a universal humanity, and a universal humanity which is a free humanity, and one destined to an apocalyptic justice. All of our epic poets have been condemned as heretics, and as ultimate heretics, and that is precisely what they are in the perspective of every established Christianity.

 Is a decisive sign of a genuine apocalypticism its embodiment of an ultimate or even an absolute heterodoxy, and above all an absolute heterodoxy in its apprehension of God, a God or Godhead that can only be known by way of the self-negation or the self-emptying of God, or the death of every established or manifest God? This is certainly true of a fully modern apocalypticism, which inevitably poses an ultimate challenge to all established authority, and above all so to every possible absolute authority. Just as it is Paul who first conjoins or unites crucifixion and apocalypse, that is a union which is reborn in a truly modern apocalypticism, but in such a way as wholly to assault or dissolve every God who is not the Crucified God, or not an absolute apocalypse. Only that assault or dissolution makes possible an apocalyptic freedom and life, so that Blake could truly name the established or manifest Christian God as Satan, a Satan who is annihilated in the self-annihilation of God, a self-annihilation which is apocalypse itself. Is that why all established theology is so distant from apocalypticism, and why all established scholarship is so closed to a uniquely modern apocalypticism, one that only can be apprehended by a genuinely radical thinking, and perhaps a genuinely radical life?


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