By: Esther Liu, Contributor
The Silhouette: Could you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
Matthew Thiessen: I'm Matthew Thiessen, an associate professor of religious studies in the faculty of social sciences here at McMaster. I primarily focus on ancient texts, what Christians call the New Testament and text out of ancient Judaism, whether that's the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testamentor early Judaism text that didn't make it into the canon of either Jews or Christians.
When did you first become interested in the topic of the apocalypse and why?
The first time that I can remember something apocalyptic coming across my radar was in 1988. I know this for a fact because I grew up just outside of Detroit on the Canadian border, just outside of Windsor, and my dad took me to my first baseball game and I had been begging to go for years. It was at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. I have no recollection of the game whatsoever, but I do remember a small plane circling around the stadium during the ball game and it had one of those banners. It said: "8 reasons why the world will end in 1988" and I had never heard of such a thing.
It said: "8 reasons why the world will end in 1988" and I had never heard of such a thing. . . I remember thinking that I have no idea what this is talking about, but I sure as heck don't want the world to end.
1988 seems like a lifetime ago, but I guess I was 11 years old at the time. I remember thinking that I have no idea what this is talking about, but I sure as heck don't want the world to end. I'm 11, all I've done is go to school. I haven't reaped any benefits. I haven't got a job or made money or travelled or everything else. So I remember thinking that this is awful: I don't want the world to end because my life hasn't really even begun yet.
And so, that's sort of where I first came across this idea of apocalyptic thinking, the end of the world sort of thinking and [it] just has popped up over and over again. Anybody can, especially thinking in a North American context, come across this kind of stuff. In 2012, there was this claim about the Mayan calendar that predicted the world was going to end. In 2013, there was a Christian pastor in the States who put out billboards all over the world talking about the world ending. And, of course, this stuff keeps happening even today.
Could you elaborate on why you're still interested in this topic?
Especially in the North American context . . . you can see especially the dominance and influence of Christian apocalyptic thinking that still occurs to this day. You'll see, over and over again, predictions about the end of the world or some sort of major apocalyptic event. This includes what happened . . . when numerous Trump supporters stormed the Capitol as some of that was influenced by apocalyptic thinking. There was the thought that there was going to be this major movement by God to keep Trump in power. But this is what some people believed: that God would intervene in American history to bring about what these people thought would be some sort of just and righteous conclusion. Other historical events in the world were also influenced by apocalyptic thinking. It's out there, it pops its head out over and over again, so I think studying this is really important.
Do you believe that there is a key lesson that we can learn from the apocalypses you study?
When you study ancient apocalyptic texts, I think they're motivated by a few key ideological or theological beliefs. One is that what happens here on Earth is ultimately under the control of some higher being. So at least in a North American context, one of the most famous apocalypses of all is the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, in the Christian Bible. It's motivated by the belief that what happens here on earth is controlled by God and that this is a reason to believe — just because life on earth is maybe crappy, things are going bad, people are dying, people are being persecuted, unrighteous people seem to be winning, bad people seem to be ruling — that ultimately, this is not the final word. So this hope that all this will change is what motivates this literature.
I think you see, whether that's been religious or secular apocalyptic thinking today, there's this idea that now is not the final word. Just talking about maybe at the secular level, it's not this belief that there's a God who is going to make things turn out right, but you can see the sort of apocalyptic thinking around climate change. Most climate change activists say that we're very close to midnight, but there's something we can do. So the idea is we're at a very dangerous point but it can change and we can have an effect in changing it for the good. There are many people thinking that we are in an apocalyptic time and that we can change this, we just have to muster the courage to do it. There's the thought about "What can the world be? This is it now, here's what's bad about it, but here's what we can hope for and aspire to and work towards."
There are many people thinking that we are in an apocalyptic time and that we can change this, we just have to muster the courage to do it. There's the thought about "What can the world be? This is it now, here's what's bad about it, but here's what we can hope for and aspire to and work towards."