Apocalyptic Apologetics


As covid-19 deaths continue to mount, as fires burn in the western half of the States, as injustices against immigrants are compounded, as the jobless numbers accumulate and the economy falters, one might conclude things are not working. Things are not working for the environment, for the poor, for immigrants, for the jobless, for those who are sick and dying, or for anyone. I suppose things are working fine for Jeff Bezos and his kin. Some will thrive on the chaos and destruction but clearly there is a limit, even for those who are benefitting from the destruction. There is a limit to consumption, a limit to pollution, a limit to the “acceptable” number of deaths, a limit to a system which appears to be breaking down. The desired outcome of the present crisis would be recognition of this limit so as to see beyond it. The crisis calls for a conversion of the imagination, for doing things differently, for a different life-style and a different system of values. There will always be those who double down on destruction but the case, an apologetic, has to be made that things are bad because the roots are rotten and there needs to be a holistic conversion.

This is always the conversion an apocalyptic Christianity calls for, as the mode of this apologetic is not reliance on the system, on common sense, or reason alone. This apologetic points to the dystopia, the violence, the failure, the evil, the lie, not in order to justify it or use it, but to transcend it. The old order of apologetics (the one in which I was trained), ontotheology (an idolatrous foundational argument), theodicy (a justification of evil in place of its defeat), moral arguments (which actually point to universal immorality) are, by definition, a grounded vision (grounded in the way things are), but the small points of light, of grace and peace, always stand in contradistinction to the way things are and indicate there is a better way. To transcend the system is to recognize its inherent limits; it is to recognize the evil it entails and the destruction upon which it relies. There has been a rejection of traditional apologetics in many quarters (I believe, rightly so), but this simply follows from the rejection of a limited notion of Christianity. An apocalyptic re-conception of Christianity calls for an apocalyptic sort of apologetics. If this apocalyptic apologetic is correct (correct about the apocalyptic nature of Christianity (a breaking in with a new Kingdom and new system) and correct about the necessity of demythologizing and deconstructing so as to apprehend the alternative order), then it would seem the Christian apologetic is only beginning.  

The holistic critique and demythologizing on the order of the theory of René Girard, demonstrates the sort of movement I have in mind. War and violence were once thought to fit within a rational political frame (“war is politics by other means”). War was once between warriors, knights, samurai, the aristocrats, in the same way sacrifice was once tied to religion. Christianity, according to Girard, removes the safety valve of the scapegoating mechanism (the third way), as the truth of Christ exposes the lie behind the mechanism of sacrificial violence (which once delimited and controlled violence) and the unfolding of this demythologized history gave rise to the total war of the previous century. As a result, a stark choice presents itself.  The choice is to either double down on commitment to inevitable progress, on the possibility of political containment of global destruction, on the consumption and destruction of the environment, or one can become a Christian (of the apocalyptic sort). Girard’s theory might be termed the first holistic apologetic in its demonstration of how violence (in religious myth in ancient society and in “containment” etc. in modern society) is the structuring mechanism of society to which Christianity offers an alternative. Recognizing the destructive apocalyptic reality of the age is the first step in accepting an apocalyptic answer.

The job of Christian apologists is not to refine Enlightenment style rational arguments but it is to demonstrate that the fires, metaphorical and literal, consuming our world were lit, not by some external force, but by the logic inherent to the arguments which would claim to save us. That is, our salvation system (inclusive of the modern sensibility, including modern religion and modern fundamentalism which reads violence as divine will) is destroying our world. Girard’s depiction of religious violence (the scapegoating mechanism, religious myth) turned into secular violence (the “idea of progress,” nuclear containment), locates the human problem in humanity – humans are responsible for their destruction and violence. An apocalyptic apologetic makes the case, first, that we are bringing on damnation, and second, that this fate is not inevitable. There is a vision, a faith, or imagination, which holds out hope. But as Girard puts it, “hope is only possible if we dare to think the perils of our time” (Girard, 2007: 16).[1]

A true Christian apologetic must begin then, with thinking and recognizing the deep perils of our time. This accords with the Greek meaning of Apolegein, which means “to tell fully.” John Milbank imagines the “apo” of the word might be connected to apophatic or a sort of objectivity, but it fits better with the notion that this narrating apologetic pertains, at least in its initial move to “standing apart,” “away from,” the peril of our world.[2] It is not a simple objective detachment. The apology is not an attempt to hold one’s ground in the city, being objective, by the logic of its system.  Milbank’s, mainly harmonious, comparison of the death of Socrates and Jesus seems to miss the stark difference of the Greek apologetic (offered by Plato on behalf of Socrates) and the Christian apologetic. Jesus stands in judgment of the logic of the city (of Pilate and Herod, of Rome and Jerusalem), at the same time he witnesses to a truth beyond the city. The failure and peril of the one, points to the other. Socrates clung to the city, the very reason for his suicide, and could not imagine a world beyond this corporate identity. Jesus literally and metaphorically died outside the city. Not, as Milbank would have it, according to the laws of the city, but beyond their purview as his was a death of banishment from the city, beyond its walls, beyond its laws, beyond its protection. Socrates died secure in his citizenship. The difference is important in recognizing the wall the Christian apologetic cannot accommodate.  The wall of hostility which would separate the inner workings of the Temple, the inner workings of Jew versus Gentile in the city, constitute the law or wall or logic that is undone in Christ.

Millions of innocent victims have been sacrificed on behalf of this barrier, first on the sacred altar and then, more dramatically and destructively, on the secular altar. Christian revelation demystified the role of sacred violence, and according to Girard, if the lie of archaic religious sacrifice had continued, the holocaust of secular violence would have remained bottled up.  The truth of violence is exposed, however, and as Girard puts it, “We are not Christian enough.” Half Christian has turned out to be more dangerous than totally deluded, and thus, according to Girard, Christianity may have unleashed the very apocalypse which would ensure its failure. Now there is scapegoating without the myth (which would contain the violence), and so the Jews must be completely destroyed as in Nazi Germany, the demonization leading to lynching in the American South continues unabated, the “total wars” of the previous century are the new norm, and mutually assured destruction (MAD) is the reigning logic. War and violence are limitless where the minimal exposure, the half Christian, is not completed by an apocalyptic vision displacing this world’s order.

In terms of my own work, traversing the fantasy, recognizing the lie, is not itself adequate.  One can question the law or manipulate the law but there really is no alternative to the law of sin and death (the mode of redemptive violence), apart from its displacement. Exposure of this primordial order, as in Marxism, or its manipulation, as in fascism and capitalism, unleashes an untold and unlimited violence. There may be a recognition that the victim is innocent (as Robert Doran points out, “the very calculated nature of Nazi propaganda shows that its inventors did not completely believe it”), that the object or the lure of our desire will not satisfy, but in the hands of capitalist marketers this exponential desire can be unleashed for total consumption (absolute capitalism).  The minimal recognition of the dystopia of consumptive desire and violence is only the beginning. Insight (the real insight of Hegel, Marx, Freud, and psychoanalysis) may be deployed to control desire and violence or simply to unleash it but it cannot cure it. Without an apocalyptic displacing of the law of the father (the conscience, the punishing superego) with the Father (Abba), without displacing death with life in the Spirit, without ridding ourselves of the image in the mirror with the image of Christ, we are doomed to repetitive violence and death drive. As Doran sums it up, “A minimal recognition that the victim is innocent inflames the passions of the persecutors who thereby seek to validate themselves by seeking out more and more victims.”[3]

Of course, the apocalyptic vision is not limited to rightly viewing the destruction but refers to the breaking in of an alternative apocalyptic kingdom. As in Paul’s demonstration of an apologetic (in Acts 26), the two apocalyptic orders (the dystopic and salvific) have to be simultaneously envisioned. In his defense before King Agrippa, Paul depicts his own religion and belief system, when he was simply a Pharisee, as driven by destructive violence:

“So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities”

(Acts 26:9-11).

This pursuit of violence and the death of Christians is not simply Paul’s story; it is the culmination of the story of what it means to be a true Pharisee. He is not apologizing for his Pharisaical commitments (as Milbank would have it), he is demonstrating to Agrippa that he once would have stood with those, like Agrippa, who would arrest, judge, and kill. Paul’s Pharisaical world was not a platform he would save and accommodate but it was a world that needed exposure and repudiation, as it was a singular manifestation of the self-destructive world order. Everyone walked according to the course of Paul’s previous world, thinking they served God while subject to the subversive powers of this world (Eph. 2:2). This is not simply Paul’s personal problem. His story contains the universal passage from out of violent darkness into the light:

“While so engaged as I was journeying to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, at midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”

(Acts 26:12-15)

The drama of Paul’s conversion is one we tend to locate in inward personal conversion, but Paul is relinquishing one world order for another. Sticking to his former identity, the system of his world, constitutes “kicking against the goads” of truth. To stick to this failing order would amount to a commitment to blindness, to violence, to causing blasphemy. It is the same sort of persecution which killed Christ (and every innocent victim).  The light of Christ breaks into this darkness so that Paul’s former world is undone and this is the passage he pictures every Christian as undergoing – passing beyond darkness to light.

He prays that all may develop a sanctified imagination, with eyes which can envision a different world order: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18). The vision which interrupts his journey is the apocalyptic revelation which interrupts, deconstructs, and reconstitutes all who share in his Gospel vision. Paul’s apologetic is apocalyptic in its depiction of this passage through perilous violence to a liberated, transcendent vision. It is an apologetic, as this story and the worlds it entails, both dystopic and salvific, is universal.  

(To learn more, plan to join our upcoming PBI class “Imaginative Apologetics.”)


[1] This is quoted from Robert Doran’s reading of Achever Clausewitz (literally: Completing Clausewitz) in his article, “René Girard’s apocalyptic modernity,” in Comunicação & Cultura, n. 11, 2011, pp. 37‑52, which I am following here.

[2] From the Forward of Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition . Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Doran, Ibid.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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