Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Apocalypse then and now: Centuries of doomsday scenarios

Concordia professor Lorenzo DiTommaso studies ancient and modern signs

Montreal, February 1, 2011 – Call it the world's oldest urban legend. Century after century, prophets of all stripes have forecast a dramatic end to civilization – often with an exact date. A case in point is the ancient Mayan calendar, which some people believe predicts a global calamity on December 21, 2012.

Such doomsday scenarios have kept Lorenzo DiTommaso busy. A professor in Concordia's Department of Religion, DiTommaso specializes in the study of ancient to modern apocalypticism – a worldview that expresses a radical way of understanding time, space and human destiny. To date, he's authored or edited five books and written over 100 journal articles, book chapters and other short works on apocalypticism. His next book, The Architecture of Apocalypticism, the first volume of a projected trilogy, will be published by Oxford University Press.

Acute interest in apocalypticism and the end of the world means that DiTommaso is frequently invited to lecture around the globe. This year he will be speaking in Jerusalem, Milan, London, Brasília and Storrs, Connecticut.

"The world is often seen as terrible place, filled with oppression, injustice and the menace of death," says DiTommaso. "Apocalypticism provides a powerful response: The world is so bad, it can't be restored. So it will be swept away."

Religious leaders have long espoused end-time scenarios from holy books and pulpits. "Judaism, Christianity and Islam all forecast an apocalypse," he says. "The end of the world, typically with a judgment day and an Armageddon, reflects the desire to escape this existence, punish one's enemies and be vindicated in light of a higher power or transcendent reality."

Professor DiTommaso studies ancient scrolls, mediaeval manuscripts, modern books and films. Fascinated by the ongoing persistence of apocalyptic beliefs, especially in their secular forms, he examines judgment-day patterns on the internet and in new religions, political rhetoric, contemporary fiction, Japanese anime and graphic novels such as The Watchmen.

Movies are another medium that feature apocalypticism. "The Matrix has all the key elements of the worldview, rebooted on a science-fiction platform," says DiTommaso, referring to the 1999 blockbuster starring Keanu Reeves. "The main character Neo is the prophesized messiah, who overthrows the system, destroys the oppressors and redeems humanity."

DiTommaso is deeply concerned by the resurgence of apocalyptic discourse over the past four decades. "More and more people see the world through the lens of apocalypticism," he observes. "One reason is that things appear to be so irreparably broken: the environment, the economy, the political system."

And therein lies the danger, he warns. "At its core, apocalypticism is a simplistic response to complex problems – either good or evil, nothing in between. And it's an adolescent response, since it places responsibility for solving these problems elsewhere."

Ultimately, doomsday prophecies are ignited by people's uncertainty about the future. "The basic propositions of the apocalyptic worldview haven't changed for over 2,000 years," DiTommaso says. "In some ways, we are prisoners of our past."

EurekAlert. 2011. "Apocalypse then and now: Centuries of doomsday scenarios". EurekAlert. Posted: February 1, 2011. Available online:

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