In these bleak months of winter 2020-21, as Trump exits the stage and Trumpism putrefies into various expressions of private madness and public “domestic violent extremism,” I have been thinking about the everlasting dominance of what biblical scholars call “the apocalyptic worldview” or “apocalypticism.” This is nothing less than the actual religion of the Christian Bible, which always subverts and destroys the attempts of Constantinian religion, modern conservativism, or irenic Jesus liberalism to present the Bible as some kind of benign pillar of civilized consciousness.
Apocalypticism rests on a number of core convictions:
- The present world is horrific and intolerable.
- Therefore “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) is Satan, an evil demon.
- But we are the good people, children of an ultimate father God who is pure goodness. “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
- The cosmos is a battlefield between good angels and evil demons.
- Human beings can and must choose to fight either for the side of good or that of evil.
- Things will get even worse, far far worse, very soon. You can take Jesus’ word for it: there will be a “great tribulation” (Mark 13:19).
- After the great tribulation comes the destruction or obliteration of the created world as we know it.
- Then the savior god will appear and resurrect the bodies of the dead.
- There will be judgment. The souls and resurrected bodies of the wicked will suffer unending torment, while the souls and bodies of the faithful good people will be rewarded with heavenly bliss of some sort.
- The End (credits: Jews under Seleucids, Jews under Persians, Persian Zoroastrians).
That’s the basic myth of apocalypticism. The best book on this topic is Chaos, Cosmos, & the World to Come: the Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, by Norman Cohn (Yale University Press, 1993). Cohn shows how this myth evolved out of a more ancient “combat myth” that was common to all major civilizations of the ancient Near East and India. These civilizations knew that they were fragile and could meet their doom at any time. So they told stories of a “chaos monster” that threatens to destroy the human order, but who would be defeated by a divine hero figure who would step in to defeat the monster and put the world to rights. Nothing odd about such stories to a generation raised on Star Wars, the Matrix, Harry Potter, the Batman trilogy, etc.
But Zoroaster and his followers, especially under the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE), changed the script considerably. They introduced new ideas, like: a perfectly good god; his counterpart, a perfectly evil god; a war between them, unfolding over the course of all human history; the necessity for humans to choose and take sides in this war; a resurrection and an afterlife; a judgment based on one’s behavior. All of these ideas were more or less new, even though the Egyptians had their own ideas about resurrection and rewards and punishments in the afterlife. The crucial change was that Zoroastrianism applied this model to history, and therefore to all cultures and peoples, high and low.
Second Temple Judaism, the origin of all Judaism as well as of Christianity, had its birth and childhood under the Achaemenid Empire, which controlled Judea and the Jews for the better part of 2 centuries (comparable to the lifetime of the United States of America). All the Jewish ideas that made New Testament Christianity what it is originate from this time (a fact which is fundamentally concealed and repressed by the adoption of “the Old Testament” as a foundation stone). Cohn thus argues that ancient Jewish apocalypticism and its Christian offshoot originate from ancient Persian ideas.
What does this have to do, really, with Satan, and with the insurrection of January 6? Everything. The Satan myth is essentially the combat myth. (See The Old Enemy: Satan & the Combat Myth, by Neil Forsyth (Princeton University Press, 1987). The name “Satan” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “the opponent” or “the adversary.” The Combat Myth fits perfectly within contemporary American politics. People are fundamentally uneasy about social, existential changes wrought by technological forces in the Information Age. The Bible itself is felt to be no longer relevant, and therefore “under assault.” America’s Civil War and Cold War are unresolved. Our children’s racial and sexual identity is being stolen from “us,” i.e. White Christian European Western Civilization. The worst are full of passionate intensity.
The Trump presidency was a psychotic eruption of the Combat Myth. Here was a great savior figure intervening on behalf of a dying white Christian America, ready to do battle with the children of darkness. His priapic excesses, if technically criminal, were proof of his titanic powers, and not any detraction from his greatness. Desperate times call for desperate measures. David and Solomon also womanized on a grand scale. That was how they thought in 2016, and it is also why Trump is so often imagined as a messiah figure. The job of the messiah is to overthrow the powers of darkness, and that’s what Trump was supposed (i.e. imagined) to do. This all makes sense within the fictional universe of the Bible, i.e., apocalypticism.
The reason both religious and secular people today are so blind to the apocalyptic bona fides of Trumpism is that we are in thrall to outdated conceptions of Christianity, the Bible, religion, prophecy, God, etc. We are trapped in a 2nd Millennium Model of what those things essentially are. If you think, for example, that C.S. Lewis was essentially right about the character of Christianity, then you have no concept of the apocalyptic energy of scripture. Lewis ignored apocalyptic themes, and made demons into pop-psychological characters of banal comedy. His Christianity, as well as of all mainline Protestant and Catholic varieties in the post-WW2 era, is essentially the “Christianity and Water” that he derided.
In a time of extreme, dualistic opposition between two cultures derived from the Bible, which both see their side as essentially good and their opponents as essentially evil, it can be hard to tell Satan apart from the Messiah. To some the cult leader is a new Christ; to others he is a Satanic figure. Either way, his role is to be a fighter, an opponent, a cosmic adversary. Trump and Satan have everything to do with one another, whether or not one believes in Satan or in the real existence of evil beings.
We are experiencing a psychotic drama in America because our sacred scriptures are fundamentally psychotic and irrational.